Stunning, spellbinding Alexander wows Ardrishaig

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A review by Philip Bowden-Smith

It is early morning in a dark and empty Ardrishaig Hall. A grand piano stands disconsolate in the silence having been unplayed all summer.

Little did it know that at 7.30pm last Saturday evening it would receive probably the biggest workout of its entire life when the Mid Argyll Arts Association’s (MAAA) first artist of the 2017/18 season, Alexander Ullman, came to Ardrishaig Hall.

He went on to deliver a dazzling piano recital devoted entirely to an eclectic mix of transcribed and original piano music by the legendary pianist and composer Franz Liszt.

To devote an entire programme to less well-known compositions by this composer in rural Argyll was a bold decision as, for many, his music is too virtuosic, brash and shallow in content but, as Alexander explained, where with many other composers their music speaks for itself, with Liszt’s you have to dig deep into the composer’s psyche to truly understand what he is trying to convey.

This quickly became apparent with Alexander’s every physical expression demonstrating how completely immersed he was in the smallest change in direction or mood. Yes, a lot of the writing was highly virtuosic – a marvel to witness on its own and delivered with incredible dexterity – but it was rarely the dominant feature, being subservient to and underpinning the emotional drive of the music. Listening to the diverse and ravishing sound world that Alexander created brought one a lot closer to understanding the semi-god status that Liszt himself earned from his adoring audiences.

One could write at length on the attributes of each programme item, but what was particularly impressive was a) the way one could ‘hear’ the orchestration in the transcription of Beethoven’s First Symphony – so cleverly executed; b) the intense devotional element of the ‘Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude’ and its beautiful pianissimo passages; c) the menacing and mischievous portrayal of the ‘Mephisto Walzer No.2’; and d) the zany Csardas to conclude.

Not content with this tour-de-force, the foot-stomping and hand-clapping audience secured, not one, but three encores – all by Liszt and beautifully executed. These included his 10th Hungarian Rhapsody and the sixth Paganini Etude.

Comments from audience members really summed up the evening’s entertainment: ‘electrifying’, ‘stunning’, ‘spellbinding’, ‘superb’. It was indeed a rollercoaster of emotions and a young member stated he found it difficult to breathe because it stirred up so many.

This was a truly memorable concert as witnessed by the resounding applause from, and the smiling faces of, the lucky and appreciative audience.

The concert was presented by Mid Argyll Arts Association in association with Argyll and Bute Concert Tours.

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