by Kyriakos P. Loukakos
In a world increasingly alienating itself from the Renaissance man’s ideal, there are still people who strive for an all embracing conception of artwork, its creator, as well as the social and historical frame of its relevance. People who do not limit themselves to a somewhat simplified notion of the artist as a human entity blindly and abstractly opposing to any kind of tradition, with the latter often slandered as mere conformism. It has been this side of Mark Viner’s approach to Music as the art of his main, yet not only, predilection that has lured us, as remotely by now as December 2012. As time has been going by since his sensational early Athens recital at the Pavlos Melas Manor, it has become clear to us that we are not facing yet another shooting star in an already heavily crowded field. Viner resembles rather to a military man who prepares his moves with patience, diligence and strategic vision.
From his stronghold as the Chairman of both the Alkan and Liszt Societies of the United Kingdom, he goes on to reinstate these and other masters or forgotten virtuosi in their actual historical interaction. He thus contributes steadily to the enhancement of our conscious overview of 19th century piano playing and its influences from and to other genres, such as Literature and Art.
His global perception comes as a fine complement to an exceptional virtuosity that aims to serve primarily the musical content of each work. It was therefore only natural that his fearless dexterity, combined with the intellectual alertness of a true musician, would draw the attention of The Keybord Charitable Trust, headed by John Leech and Noretta Conci-Leech, both Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), whose «high mission» is «to enable the best young talent to establish a firm professional standing by the age of 30». In this respect, Viner’s choice by the Trust, as the 10th pianist to play at their annual Wigmore Hall event, «the cream of their achievements», seems to further incorporate an encouraging dialogue initiated between his nostalgic and revelatory all round work and a distinguished circle of socially prominent Music lovers who very often stem from the 19th century tradition of Art and its patrons, even in some cases being themselves the descendants of the works’ dedicatees. The fact that the March 2, 2018 debut recital of Mark Viner at London’s Wigmore Hall was fairly crowded, allowing for the weather – originated transport chaos in Britain that proved prohibitive even to some of his closest followers to attend it, serves further to stress the quality of the of the Trust’s artistic choices. Thank God that these rather annoying meteorological circumstances did not discourage us from making all the way from Athens, Greece in order to witness what proved a really special event.
Why special? First and foremost because of the adventurous programming of works mostly obscure even to an informed public. This comprised a considerably demanding Alkan trilogy after an introductory Liszt hors d’ oeuvre and, after the interval, a more direct confrontation between Liszt and Thalberg, both as arrangers and performers, the two rivals quasi kept apart the one from the other by two of the most extensive and / or interpretatively intriguing nocturnes by Chopin. The recital proved special also in its well grounded coherence as testified by the informative notes of its accompanying booklet, also contributed by Viner himself and with all the painstaking documentation and reference one credits to serious and questing study. They were notes nevertheless far from pedantic, filled with the unalloyed pleasure of sharing with a general public interesting glimpses of remote times and people that acquired a new actuality through this glimpse to their lives, their creativity, their fulfillment or, more often, their solitude and despair. As for the Wigmore Hall public of the concert we attended and despite its spiteful reaction to the bold microphonic plea to suspend coughing during the concert, it proceeded to follow the unfolding of the performance in an almost religious silence and immersion.
The concert, generously sponsored by the distinguished Hamburg pediatrician, author, passionate music lover and Maecene Moritz von Bredow, was kicked off with «Bénédiction et Serment – Deux motifs de Benvenuto Cellini», S. 196, a promotional paraphrase by Franz Liszt drawing on Hector Berlioz’s eponymous opera, then in view of its revival in Weimar under Liszt’s baton and in a reworking of the score equally incited by this most generous of composer virtuosos. Viner tossed off this impressive piece to full effect, thus paving the way for the concert’s highlight, Charles – Valentin Alkan’s (1813 – 1888) «Souvenirs – Trois morceaux dans le genre pathétique » op. 15, a «phantasmagorical triptych» dedicated to Liszt. The dedicatee, not without some considerately formulated reservations, was tactful and generous enough to evaluate the 3 compositions as ones «which cannot be too highly praised». In doing so he reflected prophetically their reception by the Wigmore Hall congregation, since all attendants we talked with throughout and after the Concert were unanimous in their amazement caused by this strange, bold, insightful and indeed powerful work. And definitely this modern public did not share Robert Schumann’s fierce, even cruel, comments, also reproduced in the program booklet. Focusing on the death of a woman much loved and respected by Alkan, the trilogy is pervaded by motivic references that testify to its programmatic unity and it tests the pianist’s technique as much as his/her interpretative sensibility and architectural grasp. Having personally verified how noisy and tiresome Alkan’s music can sound if served by lesser hands and messy minds, we can assure that all three stakes were met with superb intellectual and manual potency by Viner who managed to reveal the main melodic material amidst its often complex and stentorian frame. He further raved the ear by his light-and-shade approach to the score, as in the seamless fluidity of his rising and falling chromatic scales depicting the wind or in his daemonic insistence and power when required, as in parts of no. 3, meaningfully subtitled «Morte». In sum he proved a devoted and fascinating guide to a neglected composer’s passionate confession. No doubt why his reading earned him such a spontaneous, thunderous and partly standing ovation by a public wondering how on earth music of such conviction could remain unperformed for so many years!
It is a tribute to Viner’s artistic integrity that in his programs -and this one was no exception- he abstains from any attempt to promote composers in a scale of comparative basis. On the contrary, his goal is to present each work for all its worth and let the by now well instructed listener to form a personal view for a period, its protagonists and their mutual influence and interaction, taking into account each and everyone’s pragmatic contribution. In this respect we must admit that even his fervent advocacy did not quite manage to convince us of Sigismond Thalberg’s compositional charisma. He had though his chance in Viner’s recital, as one of the most influential pianists of the 19th century amply deserves, with an 1837 «Fantasie sur des thèmes de l’ opéra Moïse de G. Rossini», his op. 33, in the aftermath of this early Rossini opera’s 1827 Parisian reincarnation under the new title «Moïse et Pharaon ou le Passage de la mer Rouge». Thalberg chose an act 3 chorus and the lastingly famous act 4 preghiera, incidentally selected in 1946 by Arturo Toscanini for his by now legendary Riapertura del Teatro alla Scala celebratory concert. It was by the way this particular highlight that marks the earliest surviving document of Renata Tebaldi’s «voce d’ un angelo», the Italian Diva having debuted scarcely two years earlier, as Helen of Troy in Arrigo Boito’s «Mefistofele», at the provincial Teatro Sociale of Rovigo. And it was perhaps this record that critically limited the appeal of Thalberg’s transcription, at least to this listener.
The atmosphere changed with the two op. 48 Nocturnes by Frédéric Chopin in readings of a certain detachment, fluent, unaffected, sensitive but not sentimental. They led to the concert’s last chapter and a most demanding one, the 1844 «Reminiscences de Norma» drawing on themes from Vincenzo Bellini’s beloved opera. Here at last Liszt’s supremacy became evident as much for the creative adaptation of the operatic themes and their imaginative interweaving, as also for the expressive power of the pianistic invention and the evident dedication of the arranger to Bellini’s towering masterpiece. No Callas record hindered in this instance us, or for that reason any other in the public, from surrendering to Viner’s whole hearted and whole fingered advocacy, bringing to the fore the proverbial «three hands» technique, propagated by Thalberg and vindicated, with the most musical of intentions, by this of his current successors. The 29 – year old artist thanked for the thunderous applause with yet another foretaste of his future feats, the delectable «The Flatterer», op.50, a barely 3-minute discreet and delicately ironic salon piece by the scandalously neglected Parisian composer Cécile Chaminade (1857 – 1944), whose works the artist is going to record shortly. We are certainly due for new and still unknown pleasures from this, our contemporary but unashamed Romantic, among today’s pianists. On with it then!
 Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”.
Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory” Society.