Thursday, November 4, 2021

St Mary’s, Perivale Lane, Perivale, Middlesex UB6 8SS

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

The principal London concert halls, demanding audiences to fill them, can be daunting for artists as well as an aesthetic challenge for chamber or solo promotions needing a particular kind of immediacy or intimacy. In descending order, give or take, Milton Court has a capacity of 600, the Wigmore 550, Jerwood Hall/LSO St Luke’s 400, King’s Place 400, Purcell Room 300, Performance Hall RCM 150. Pending the planned new Bechstein Hall in Wigmore Street (100), anything smaller is hard to find. The 1901 Arts Club in South Bank Exton Street is one (45), Leighton House of long memory and exotic orientalia (100) another. Then there’s St Mary’s, Perivale (80).

One of the metropolis’s oldest, smallest churches, St Mary’s, closed for worship in 1972, affords a glimpse into times that were. Grade 1 listed, it dates to at least the thirteenth-century if not the twelfth and the reign of King Stephen, William the Conqueror’s grandson. Pre-Queen Victoria, west London merged with countryside within three miles or so of Westminster. When Mendelssohn stayed with the young Horsley sisters at 1 High Row, Kensington Gravel Pits, Clementi’s former home (128 Kensington Church Street since), it was a haven of gardens, open fields and a large pond enjoying “excellent air and beautiful prospects on the North … enlivened every hour by the passage of mail coaches, stages and waggons” (Thomas Faulkner, History of Kensington, 1820). Seven miles further – within crowing distance of Ealing and the London road through Uxbridge and High Wycombe to Oxford – Perivale (Pear Tree Valley) was remote, its secluded landscape prone to flooding. In 1881 it had thirty-four inhabitants, twenty years later sixty, in 1921 one-hundred-and-fourteen. A “curiously lonely-looking little place. It lies in the valley of the Brent, among broad meadows, [with five] hay-farms and no other houses, not even a labourer’s cottage” (James Thorn, Environs of London, 1876). Annihilated, transformed and industrialised in the 1930s, it’s these days a somewhat anonymous enclave in the busy, noisy, fumed hinterland of the North Circular. Still, in a way, the “geographical expression, nothing more” that it was in the past. Yet, with its ancient church surviving the ravages of history, conflict and man, a place of resonance John Betjeman found time to memorialise in the closing lines of one of his later poems (MiddlesexA Few Late Chrysanthemums, 1954):

Parish of enormous hayfields

Perivale stood all alone,

And from Greenford scent of mayfields

Most enticingly was blown

Over market gardens tidy,

Taverns for the bona fide,

Cockney singers, cockney shooters,

Murray Poshes, Lupin Pooters,

Long in Kelsal Green and Highgate silent under soot and stone.

Leased from the London Diocesan Fund, St Mary’s was inaugurated in September 2004, the second of its concerts featuring Hugh Mather, Chairman of the Executive Committee since 2005, playing Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata and Schubert’s B-flat Trio – not a programme for the faint of heart or technique. Mather is an altruistic director, old-world in attitude and encouragement. Under his informed watch, young musicians (not just pianists) find a sympathetic, comforting platform Established names and elder statesmen occasionally turn up, either to play or talk. Peter Donohoe is scheduled in December Repeat invitations are not uncommon. Run on a voluntary basis, relying on donations, without external funding, over eleven-hundred events have been given since 2004. In the hands of ex-BBC engineers, ‘live’ high definition video streaming on YouTube and Vimeo, without a paywall, ensures worldwide targeting as well as providing artists with quality multi-angle video and promotional material. Living with modern technology, looking ahead competitively, lies behind the cosiness.

KaJeng Wong from Hong Kong, laureate in the 2019 Maria Canals International Piano Competition, describes himself as “Man of Fingers, Pianist, Artistic Director, Columnist”. His advanced training has been under Emile Naoumoff (Indiana), Ronan O’Hara (Guildhall) and Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist (Ingesund). His matinee recital proved exceptional – as much a display of imagination and insight as a showcase for St Mary’s. Their boudoir Yamaha grand has weathered all manner of storms over the years: in some hands it can sound congested and tired, lacklustre even. Not a Steinway, Fazioli, Bechstein, Blüthner or Shigeru Kawai, it shouldn’t be played as such. Saturating the acoustic space of this “tiny” church – only too easy – isn’t the object of the exercise. Given his concentration and concern for texture, voicing and articulation, resisting all attempts to rush notes or push his tone, unfazed by the odd misfire, without histrionics, Wong had only to touch the instrument to reveal a soul and sensitivity within that unexpectedly surprised. He made it sing and speak.

Maturity cloaked in youth, KaJeng plans his projects with care. Theming is critical. Traversing Schubert (“Depart for a wonderful world”), Scriabin (“Lost in the abyss of the soul”) and Schumann (“Return to core of hearts” – Fantasy Opus 17), his debut CD (Ginger Muse HK) was released under the title Seasons of Life. For St Mary’s, his God, Pray, Love recital – a programme he’s done before – followed a similar tripartite structure, the music of each element played without a break to form a seamless meditation. God – Bach/Gounod: Ave Maria, Bach: Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, Liszt: In festo transfigurationis Domini nostri Jesu Christi and Benediction de Dieu dans la solitudePray – Franck: Prelude Chorale and Fugue. Love – Liszt: Cantique d’amour, Bach/Naoumoff: ‘Aus Liebe Will Mein Heiland Sterben’ (St Matthew Passion), Bach/Petri: Sheep May Safely Graze, Bach: Prelude in C, BWV 846.

It all made persuasive sense, even if, to my mind, the arch structure seemed stretched by one too many pieces in the flanking sections. Pianistically (and dynamically), the journey ranged from flickering-candle dream (Liszt) through mighty Cavaillé-Coll allusion and hallowed aria (Franck) to fragile virginal suggestion (Bach/Naoumoff). Crudity doesn’t come into KaJeng’s vocabulary. His basses are richly cosseted, moulded into a harmonically foundational, sensuously glowing experience. He can float a phrase, each note with a delicate glint of its own however restrained the action. Refined understanding lies behind his cadences. His Liszt is to the style born, the paragraphing spun with a beauty and grandeur, a surge and climax, reminiscently Russian yet sprung of highly charged personal belief. Technique at the service of art. His fantasy and orchestrated colouring, his ability to turn each mezzo octave-doubling, low chord or echo into audibly meaningful utterances tensing nerve ends, made for some extraordinary intensity in Benediction and Cantique d’Amour. Opening and closing with the same primary C-major Prelude – Gounod-ordained, Bach-original – fused into a tenderly hushed dawn/dusk moment. No encore needed, none offered.

“Play, play, play!” Lazar Berman would impassion. “Listen, listen, listen!” Medtner would insist. “Music-making has to be truthful, the presentation cannot be cheap,” says KaJeng, it has to be “luxurious”. He played, he listened, he gave us truth, he showed us luxury.