Saint-Saëns, Scarlatti, Liszt, Khachaturian, Bach, Offenbach, Mozart, Chopin, Schubert: Béla & Julia Hartmann (piano), MV Balmoral Cruise, 29.9.2013, 2.10.2013.

There is an ever-pressing danger that any piano recital given on board a cruise liner will descend to the lowest common denominator. I have heard well-qualified on-board pianists present the most hackneyed pieces in an obvious attempt to be popular. Without being too specific, it is fairly easy to cite the particular Chopin ‘Nocturne’, Rachmaninov ‘Prelude’ and Liszt ‘Liebstraum’ that will feature in many programmes. That is to say nothing about the inevitable arrangement of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Lennon and McCartney. There is no condemnation implied of popular pieces as such – only an obsession with them.

It is not my intention to second-guess the musical ‘literacy’ of any given cruise audience, however it is likely to much less-specialised than the Wigmore Hall crowd. Their range of interest will span Einaudi to Elgar and back to John Barry and Sebastian Bach. Inevitably, one of two musical ‘anoraks’ will be in the audience wondering why their particular protégé is not given wider billing. The odd musical snob will deprecate the presence of any pot-boilers in the programme.

Béla and Julia Hartmann struck an ideal balance with their two excellent recitals given on the MV Balmoral, as the ship sailed from Southampton towards some lesser-known ports in the Mediterranean. This husband and wife team chose to present a wide range of music, mainly for piano solo, but also including a number if duets.
The first recital (29th September) began with a good account of some of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, including the ubiquitous ‘The Swan’ and the less-commonly heard ‘Lion’s Royal March’ complete with the roar. Although Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) was born in Italy, he spent much of his career in the service of the Spanish and Portuguese royal households. So this association made him highly appropriate for a cruise visiting Lisbon and Malaga. Scarlatti wrote some 555 piano sonatas and unfortunately there was only space for Julia to play two of them. These are timeless works that defy categorisation.

Beethoven was represented by the final two movements of his Sonata in E flat, Op.27 No.1 (Quasi una fantasia). This was a bold choice and avoided the temptation to opt for the ‘Moonlight’ or the ‘Pathetic’. The final movement of this work is particularly interesting and adopts a cyclic form with references to the opening and slow movements. Béla played this with great proficiency and enthusiasm.

The next group of works were given by Julia and included the famous C sharp minor Prelude by Rachmaninoff alluded to above. However it was good to hear the slightly less-popular G sharp minor example from Op.32. The easiest of Liszt’s Consolations (No.1) followed before she concluded with a stunning performance of Khachaturian’s Toccata dating from 1932. Originally part of a larger piano suite including a Waltz–Capriccio and a Dance, this work utilises folk-music from Armenia as well as the then-contemporary modernist techniques with driving rhythms and a contrasting nostalgic middle section. This first recital concluded with Dame Myra Hess’ piano duet arrangement of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, from Cantata BWV147. It is an adaptation that I did not know existed, however I understand that is was published some eight years (1934) after the solo version. It is effective in both incarnations.
Whilst the MV Balmoral was steaming north along the Spanish coast towards the Costa Brava town of Palamos, Béla and Julia Hartmann gave their second recital. This time the proceedings opened with an arrangement for piano duet of Jacques Offenbach’s ‘Barcarolle’ from the Tales of Hoffmann. I was delighted to hear another work from Scarlatti, this time the well-known (certainly the most recorded) Sonata in E major, K380. It is my favourite.

I have never heard a live performance of Mozart’s improvisatory Fantasia in D minor, K397, so it was interesting to hear Julia give an inspiring account of this challenging piece. The work is characterised by a certain lack of ‘traditional’ form and has a considerable number of tempi changes.

Béla Hartman followed this with Chopin’s Nocturne in E minor (No. 19, Op.72/1 posth.) with its attractive cantabile sections balanced by a more passionate middle section. This work was composed when Chopin was only seventeen, but already reveals the hand of a master. Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen is always popular with audiences. Béla played three of the thirteen movements including the beautiful ‘Träumerei’ (Dreaming).

The major work in the second recital was the massive Scherzo in B minor by Chopin. Béla played this work with great absorption and matched the brilliant opening and closing ‘whirl of stormy emotion’ with a much more poetic middle section which is composed in the relative minor. The recital concluded with Franz Schubert’s ‘Military March’ in D for piano duet which is always guaranteed to ‘bring the house down.’

There were a few concerns that I had about these recitals, none of which reflected on the two artists’ technical and interpretive accomplishments. Firstly, the piano was a little ‘temperamental’. At times there seemed to be an almost metallic ‘honky-tonk’ accompaniment to the proceedings. To be fair, this instrument is used for all kinds of music making, from jazz, the ‘Shows,’ the Sunday Service and ‘jazz by night.’ Secondly, the recitals took place in the Neptune Lounge. On the MV Balmoral this is the main performance space where most of the theatrical entertainment takes place. There is a bar for the patrons, and unfortunately no-one seemed to have told the bar staff that a piano recital was in progress. It is very difficult to concentrate on Chopin and Scarlatti to the accompaniment of ice buckets being filled and emptied, glasses stacked and bottles being thrown into waste bins. On this ‘note’ it was also unfortunate that the ladies ‘powder room’ was near the door of the lounge – every so often the sound of the ‘Dyson’ hand-dryer drowned the more reflective musings of the pianists.

Finally, I should have liked Béla and Julia Hartmann to have played one or two pieces that reflected the largely Spanish destination of the cruise. Scarlatti is a wee bit tentative; however a couple of pieces by Albeniz, Turina or Granados would have fitted the bill ideally. But in spite of this last criticism, these were exceptionally well-planned recitals that explored a goodly range of music. The quality of the playing was excellent throughout and the audience managed to behave reasonably well: I was only conscious of a few prolonged stage-whispers and coughing fits as events proceeded.
John France

Pianist makes masterful debut - Julia Hartmann (piano), Bristol Cathedral

With the piano placed in the choir, there was a more intimate feeling given to this lunchtime recital presented by Julia Hartmann on her first visit to Bristol. A popular programme started appropriately enough with October from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, a gentle piece charmingly played. Brahms’ arrangement of a Bach chaconne is a test for any pianist as it is for left hand only. The intricate music wasn’t a problem for Julia who gave a brilliant rendition in which she showed amazing stamina.

The two Rachmaninov preludes were both in the minor key. The G sharp is both quiet and intense whilst the famous C sharp is full of ferocious chords which gave Julia no problems at all. Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp minor was played with graceful abandon by the pianist before tackling the mighty Scherzo No 1.
Ms Hartmann certainly made a great impression.

John Packwood, Bristol Evening Post, Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Blenheim Music Circle 14th July 2002 A Concert by Julia Hartmann (née Williams) and Yukie Wake

It is not often that one gets an opportunity to hear such delightful and intriguing music, and the enthusiasm of the audience demonstrated how amply they had been rewarded for coming on one of our rare summer days.
The Blenheim Music Circle was recently entertained by two young pianists, Julia Karen Williams and Yukie Wake, with a programme of piano duets. Such a programme presents its own difficulties, for if it is not to become merely a matter of accuracy and strict timing, what is called for is a peculiar empathy which enables the performers to feel, as it were, the very heartbeats of their partners and to anticipate the dynamics, touch, phrasing and timing that breathe life into a score. Then again there is the problem of material. It is clear that composers who were also piano teachers would write pieces which master and pupil could play together on the same piano, especially if the pupil were young and pretty. Such pieces would vary in difficulty and depth according to the skills of the pianists involved.

The four pieces chosen for this concert covered a range of music especially associated with Vienna and Prague. It began with Beethoven, his set of variations on a theme of his friend and patron, Graf von Waldstein - an early piece with plenty of youthful fireworks which the artists communicated well. This was followed by Schubert’s much-loved Fantasie in F minor where the pianists successfully conveyed the energy and delicacy, the lyricism and drama that this wonderful work demands.

After the interval we had the Sonata KV 19d by Mozart, a charming exhibition-piece perhaps written with his gifted sister, Nannerl, in mind, but the highlight of this half of the concert was the set of five Slavonic Dances by Dvorak. These pieces are rhythmically and melodically so high-spirited that it is difficult to prevent oneself from being swept away, at least in imagination, and joining in the dance, and certainly the pianists excelled themselves, thinking and playing as one through the expressive variations which this music demands.

It is not often that one gets an opportunity to hear such delightful and intriguing music, and the enthusiasm of the audience demonstrated how amply they had been rewarded for coming on one of our rare summer days.

David Shavreen



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