Neil Georgeson Enthralls Audience With Illustrated Piano Recital

by Alastair Hamilton -

Neil Georgeson, originally from the village of Aith but now based in London, concluded his three-episode series of concerts with a sparkling performance that pushed every kind of boundary.

Neil has always been interested in the development of music; he’s artistic director of the Ossian Ensemble, a new-music group; and, whilst some of the musical items on the programme were familiar, others were (as he put it) a bit ‘out there’; one was a UK premiere.

In Shetland, where music really is at the heart of the community, the audience is used to unusual collaborations and novel sounds, whether home-grown, by performers such as Chris Stout, or during events such as the Shetland Folk Festival.

It helps, too, that Neil’s approach to his art is so utterly down to earth; and, whilst his art is beautifully-executed, Neil also comes across as musical scientist, testing ideas, hypotheses and techniques. Without fail, his sheer enjoyment and curiosity inspires the audience. If the television scientist, Brian Cox, made programmes about music, they’d probably feel a lot like Neil’s February concert in Mareel, Lerwick.

a sparkling performance that pushed every kind of boundary

This was to be a very visual event and the first treat had come before the music began. Mareel’s concert hall is on Lerwick’s waterfront and Neil had imagined it with no wall at the rear of the stage. A video recording of the view over the harbour, with ships and seabirds coming and going, was projected on a screen that stretched from floor to ceiling, ‘bringing the outside in’ as the programme put it.

The evening was entitled Pictures at an Exhibition: Island Life and the main work was Mussorgsky’s well-known musical essay on the experience of looking at a series of paintings by his late friend, Viktor Hartmann, who had died at the age of 39 in August 1873.

Elsewhere in the programme, though, there were several references to Shetland themes, especially the crofting and sheep-rearing life which was so much a part of Neil’s youth.

bringing the outside in

The first two works were preludes by Debussy, linked to titles that had been hidden in the programme notes, in this case ‘the wind on the plain’ and ‘heather’. Debussy had hidden titles in the original scores. They were followed by three short works by Georges Crumb, each inspired by one of Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena chapel, Padua. As we could see from the projected images, the first, the Shepherd’s Nõel, featured a sheep, the second a camel and the last, echoing the Coventry Carol, a starry sky.

Neil then moved on to the Mussorgsky, offering an account of the music that was marked by great warmth and fluency in both the gentlest and most powerful passages. Not all the pictures that Mussorgsky saw survive, but those that do were shown on the large screen, undoubtedly adding to the performance. Originally written for piano, the work was later arranged for orchestra by Ravel, but the piano version - which makes exceptional demands on the player - is a delight. Neil's account was superbly wrought.

After the interval, two of three pieces by Francois Couperin took us back to the croft, with Neil illustrating the first (Les tricoteuses – knitters) with the music transcribed into a knitting pattern. For the second, (Les bergeries –sheepfolds), Neil had produced a map showing the routes taken in caaing (gathering) of sheep at Aith, including the one he’d taken. The third piece (Les maillotins – little hammers) was a reference both to the piano and to construction, so there were some images of the building plans of Mareel.

We then heard – and saw – the first UK performance of Øyvind Torvund’s Abstraction in Folk Art. The piece is intended to be performed with visual accompaniment, in what is described as a ‘total artwork’. The patterns derived from folk art are the inspiration for the music and, in a separate projected panel, notes are linked to colours, as Neil demonstrated by playing scales. The work concludes with two Norwegian folk dances, in this case played by Neil with his own previous cassette recording of the music both in and out of sync. It was perfectly executed and intriguing to hear and see.

total artwork

That was followed by another, even more abstract, piece, Treatise by Cornelius Cardew, which has no conventional score but instead requires the pianist to interpret abstract lines, symbols and shapes. In this case, Neil performed four of the work’s 193 pages and the performance featured electronically-generated sounds Including recordings of the sea and the wind) produced by Shetland-based electro-acoustic composer Martin Clarke. During the piece, Neil coaxed sounds from the Steinway using lengths of horsehair from a fiddle bow and, at one stage, a chisel.

Interesting though these experimental works were, Neil brought us back to a more conventional place (‘it’ll sound’, he said, ‘a bit more like music’) with works by Liszt, again linked to pastoral themes and, in the case of the last, Orage, a storm. This time, he played against a serene background of video images featuring samples of London architecture that had been specially compiled by Alicja Rogalska.

It was a remarkable evening’s entertainment and one that will certainly linger in the memory; and although this was the last of Neil’s performances in Shetland Arts’ current classical season, he’ll be back in September.

Meanwhile, the next concert in this series will be given on 11 March by members of the highly-regarded Hebrides Ensemble, when they’ll be playing works for clarinet, cello and piano by Leighton, Bruch, Debussy, Ysang Yun and Poulenc.

a remarkable evening’s entertainment

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