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Beethoven For Breakfast
Published on Saturday, 22 August 2009

Since each of the thirty-one recitals presented by the Royal Over-Seas League has a different programme, it is very hard to review a single concert without mentioning the Music at 100 Princes Street series as a whole. Perhaps best described as the Edinburgh International Festival on the Fringe, it certainly lives up to its description in its press release as "one of the most civilised experiences on the Fringe". You won't find a hastily constructed stage, clear plastic beer glasses, or trailers serving food, and you certainly won’t hear applause during the music! Even the tickets are fancier than the normal Fringe ticket.

But enough about the venue - it is one of those things you have to experience first hand. This year, the morning concerts fall under one of two sub-series: Bach for Breakfast and Beethoven for Breakfast. At least one piece in each hour-long programme is by the composer in question, although there is usually music by other composers of a similar style. There are exceptions though; the link between Wieniawski and Bach is not immediately clear.

The Beethoven for Breakfast I turned up to started and finished with a work by Felix Mendelssohn. It is perhaps unsurprising to find Mendelssohn cropping up everywhere during this year's Festival, since it's the 200th anniversary of his birth and he has a strong connection to Scotland (as evidenced by his Hebrides Overture and Scottish Symphony). The first piece of the morning was another example, his Scottish Sonata. Curiously, the piece is actually his Fantasia, Op. 28, published in 1833, and evidence suggests it was sketched before his first trip to Scotland in 1829.

The pianist, Martin Cousin, ably evoked the sense of brooding in the first movement, coaxing from the piano all the yearning from the main theme. Although a little heavy-handed during the final movement, perhaps getting swept away in the music's virtuosity, the playing was technically flawless. Aspiring pianists take note: this is undoubtedly a result of many years of playing scales again and again and again.

The other Mendelssohn piece is confusingly one of two underperformed pieces described as his Andante cantabile and Presto agitato. To make matters worse (for a reviewer at least) neither have an opus number. I'm still not absolutely sure which of the two was performed - I have a sneaking suspicion it was not the B major one as listed in the programme. Whatever piece it was, Cousin picked up where he left off with the Mendelssohn Fantasia, finishing with another flawless display of fast scale runs. Together, the two pieces show there is far more to Mendelssohn’s solo piano music besides his Liede ohne Worte.

The necessary Beethoven of the concert was his Piano Sonata No. 28, Op. 101. The first of his "late" sonatas, they reflect a far more personal and intimate style. Although some have criticised the sonata as too self-indulgent at times, Cousin presented a strong case for the work - and despite my enjoying the Scottish Sonata more, there's very little to criticise about the Beethoven.

Playing with his usual sensitivity but more controlled during the faster passages than in the Mendelssohn pieces, Cousin gave this piece a real sense of gravitas. Perhaps because the sonata is better known than the Mendelssohn pieces, Cousin also seemed to phrase the lines better and find more nuances in the music. The acoustic was perhaps too dry for the introspective third movement to have its full effect - but overall it was a very mature and proficient performance, and most importantly, a morning well spent.

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