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Tsybuleva, Institut Français/TAM Estonia, St James Piccadilly | reviews, news & interviews

Tsybuleva, Institut Français/TAM Estonia, St James Piccadilly

Tsybuleva, Institut Français/TAM Estonia, St James Piccadilly

Programme and venue undermine Leeds prizewinner while Estonian male voices triumph

Anna Tsybuleva: poise and infinite sensitivityVera Ley

Cherrypicking from 17 concerts to come up with the one by last year's Leeds International Piano Competition winner may seem a bit unfair to the French Institute's ever more ambitious annual It's All About Piano! Festival. It was hard, for instance, to miss out on the youth element, the Satie bookending the weekend's events, or for that matter the absolute star of the festival two years ago, David Kadouch, who then gave one of the best, and most intriguingly programmed, recitals I've ever heard and teamed up for a Saturday night duo recital with Adam Laloum. Let's just say that the alternative was a unique chance to hear a famous Estonian male voice choir, of which more anon.

Yet Anna Tsybuleva's London debut recital (***) wasn't such a bad choice. To have been better, it would have entailed a slightly different programme, a less airless room and warmer acoustics; those of the Chopin Room, one of the recital spaces which have burgeoned since the festival launched in the Cinema and Library, were relentlessly hard on a Steinway that didn't sound in the best of health. But you could hear and see why Tsybuleva took first prize in Leeds. Still in her mid-twenties, Tsybuleva shows perfect poise as she sits at the piano preparing to launch; then every mood figures in her expressive face. Throughout C P E Bach's  B major Sonata, a wry if hardly Scarlatti-level classical exercise, she self-conducted perfectly timed pauses between sections. Runs and trills were perfection; an almost deafening silence formed a backdrop to absolute clarity.

Anna Tsybuleva

Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy began springily, without Richteresque grandeur. The heart and soul of the entire recital rested in the C sharp minor song and its variations, Tsybuleva (pictured above at yesterday's recital by Mariona Vilaros) finding perspectives in the bass despite the room's unremitting dryness. Only that touch of the daemonic some find necessary in a pianist was missing from the fugue and conclusion; I'll settle for the infinite sensitivity. It surfaced again in the darker depths of Reger's Aquarellen, though Tsybuleva also demonstrated that she'd  be a wonderful interpreter of Schumann's Carnaval-style whims in Reger's second number.

Why, though, choose all 24 of Shostakovich's early Preludes as a weird finale? Simplistic at times to the point of sounding like music for beginners - nothing wrong with that if Shostakovich had a gift for melody at this point - they evade any real centre; the gift for parody and burlesque we know, but even that isn't a patch on a more persuasive sequence like Prokofiev's Visions fugitives or Shostakovich's own, more experimental Aphorisms. Tsybuleva's magic in funeral march and distant reverie could not keep ultimate boredom at bay; 4.30pm on a Sunday afternoon is not the time to be purveying endless trifles.

TAM Male Voice Choir

Not all the music was first-class, either, in the Saturday evening programme of the Academic Male Choir of Tallinn University of Technology (*****), to give TAM its full, unwieldy title (an even larger chorus pictured above in Estonia). But the novelty of Baltic voices, their personality, depth and charm, held the spell throughout a very well-devised and presented sequence. We're familiar with the vibrato-free but bass-rich and tonally nuanced sound from Finnish choirs like the Polyteknikkojen Koro from Aalto University in last year's Proms highlight, Sakari Oramo's performance of Sibelius's Kullervo Symphony; but of course Estonian is not the same language, and the choral pride of Europe's greatest success story shines in those huge festivals in which at least half the country seems to participate.

"Ballads" was the theme, and there were two peerless highlights.In Voices from Tammsaare's Herdboy Days, Estonian master composer Veljo Tormis assembles Estonian folksongs including a recording of a traditional female singer, and weaves a symphony of sound around them; the mounting, constantly modulating sequence at the two-thirds mark was thrilling.

Ain AngerAnd why have I never previously heard live in concert Britten's The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard? The composer's dramatic genius tells a tale with splendid contrasts in all of ten minutes, a mini-opera no less fine in its way than his late drama for mezzo and small orchestra Phaedra. Fellow audience members wondered why we laughed when the cuckolded husband "lifted up the coverlet, he lifted up the sheet" on his wife and her lover, but the nervous humour at a moment of high tension is unmistakeable.

A top-notch collective deserves the finest of special guests, and they got it in the shape of compatriot Ain Anger (pictured above), currently singing Pimen superbly in the Royal Opera Boris Godunov and a bass in a million. You know it when you hear it. The ease, sonority and resonance immediately impressed themselves on us in the uncompromising grimness of Tubin's Song of the Retreating Soldiers. Then Anger had his Wagnerian moment in the sun, totally at ease with Daland's Act 2 aria from The Flying Dutchman in between rollicking sailors' choruses (I don't know what the Estonian is for "rhubarb", but these jolly men rhubarbed genially between verses). In short, the icing on a very splendid 70th birthday cake for this unique ensemble.

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