Be My Guest: Chris Gray reviews Benjamin Frith in concert

Be My Guest: an occasional series featuring guest posts and contributions. This week, Music Society President Chris Gray reviews yesterday’s lunchtime recital by Benjamin Frith.


Frothy Frith: Pictures a plenty!

Chris Gray
Top brass: Chris Gray.

During the ever popular Lunchtime Concert series, sponsored by Furley Page, I sat and listened to what was an absolutely outstanding performance by Benjamin Frith of Mussorgsky’s Original Pictures at an Exhibition. The concert not only forward looking to a performance of Ravel’s orchestrated version by the University Symphony Orchestra, but also provided a warming and gratifying experience on an otherwise cold and bleak day on the Canterbury campus.

This iconic piece opens with a simple Promenade played at a quicker tempo than the ear is used to, having been a veteran of many interpretations of the Ravel orchestration. Frith provided a very lyrical and sensitive performance of this renowned motif. The movement was in two sections; the chorale opening bars and the rich density of the harmony to follow, and this was apparent in Frith’s playing as he offered two beautiful passages of playing. Throughout the concert, the pianist had a way of creating different timbres of sounds from the piano, which provided even greater colour throughout the performance.

The next movement, Gnomus, shows off the grotesquery of the toy nutcracker present in this picture. The piano was alive with stunning misshapen motifs that installed terror into the listener. Frith had a brilliant tendency to unleash fury without losing control of his instrument which was apparent throughout the performance.

Following another Promenade between pictures the piece progresses to Il Vecchio Castello which depicts an old castle by night. The continuous pedal note in the left hand imitates the sombre and distant nature of this movement, whilst the reminiscent playing certainly transported the listener to another land.

Once again the listener is transported via an assertive Promenade towards the next painting Tuileries based on a picture of the park of the same name. The dexterity in articulation and delicate tempi changes conveyed the playful nature of the children depicted in the painting. This was in stark contrast to the following movement Bydlo, a huge cart drawn by oxen. The power of the piano itself was apparent throughout this movement and the dynamical contrast reflected the passing of the cart; heavy and unwieldy the playing was a relentless trudging through the thick mud lining the cart’s route, and the dense chords in the left hand mirrored this.

Via a yet another Promenade, Mussorgsky reflects on the previous picture with a reflective and sombre recapitulation of the main theme. Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells lifts the oppressive feeling of the previous movement. Ben showed great skill in not only the speed of his playing but also the accuracy at which he danced across the ivories. It was a great interpretation and the tempi at which Frith played seemed perfectly natural and transported the listener into the gallery. The next painting follows on immediately into an argument between two Jewish gentlemen: Samuel Goldberg and Schmulye. The two characters were exhibited during the movement, with great dynamical contrast between the sections and the different personalities within the music. The next painting Limoges depicts a busy market place and a discussion between a group of women. Again Frith interpreted this brilliantly with dynamic busy playing and reflected the lively nature of the market place. A dark and dank Roman Catacombe is represented by a sheer mass of noise from the piano, daylight could be seen between the piano stool and the pianist himself(!), as the solid columns of sound emitted from the instrument.

Following on from this picture, Mussorgsky reflected on the loss of his close friend with a chant-like, haunting Promenade which leads to an ephemeral ‘Amen’ reminiscent of his friend’s rise to heaven. The penultimate painting The Hut on Fowl’s Legs is of a clock in the shape of the hut of Baba Yaga. This painting provided two distinct sections ranging from evil, demonic and massive playing representing the drama that surrounds the witch Baba Yaga, and the mysterious and suggestive aura that represents the sorcery of the witch.

An eddying chromatic scale propels the user into the Great Gate of Kiev, which is the manifestation of the whole piece. Magnificent spread chords imitate the tolling bells of the Great Gate and the theme returns as a trident triumphant tune very fitting as a memorial to Mussorgsky’s great friend.

As an orchestral player, I felt the piece lacked body, which was probably due to the piano, and the fact that Ravel wrote such a wonderful orchestration of Mussorgsky’s original work. However this did not detract from the simple fact that this was an outstanding performance by a genuinely talented performer. Benjamin Frith transported us to Mussorgsky’s side as he walked around the gallery, and this concert will go down in history for me as an incredibly important one. Not only did it provide an insight into Mussorgsky’s original pursuance of timbre, dynamic and tempi and will prove invaluable to my experience as an orchestral tuba player playing this piece as part of the University Symphony Orchestra.

I hope the next concert is good, it has got a lot to live up to!

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Sponsors of the Lunchtime Concert series

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