Pianist Lorelle McNaughton transports Whangarei audience to Spain

New ZealandNew Zealand Padre Soler, Granados, Albéniz, Falla, Mompou: Lorelle McNaughton (piano). Old Library, Whangarei, New Zealand, 11.6.2022. (PSe)

Lorelle McNaughton

Padre Soler – Sonata in D minor, R24; Sonata in D flat, R88
Enrique Granados Galante and Rondella Aragonesa from Danzas Españolas (1890)
Isaac Albéniz Iberia, Book III (1907) and Book IV (1908)
Manuel de FallaCuatro Piezas Españolas (1909)
Federico Mompou Canciones y Danzas Nos. 1 (1921) and 6 (1941)

Of Māori-Chinese and Scottish descent, Lorelle McNaughton was born and bred in Manurewa, NZ. After graduating at Auckland University, she attended Sydney Conservatorium where she acquired her Master’s degree and a growing interest in Spanish piano music. An impressive raft of scholarships, awards and competition wins funded further studies – in Spain. At the Academia Marshall and Liceu Conservatori her teachers were, significantly, themselves former students of Alicia de Laroccha. To cap the story so far, Lorelle has gone on to garner a considerable reputation as a Spanish music specialist (and a singularly idiomatic one, at that), performing not only in NZ and Australia but also in Europe and the UK.

Inevitably, such exemplary credentials generated a buzz of expectancy in the well-filled house at this, Whangarei Music Society’s third recital (given in association with Chamber Music NZ) of 2022. At first glance Lorelle’s programme, entitled ‘Spain – from Classicism to Modernism’, looked a bit ‘hollow’, in the sense that on the one hand classicism was represented solely by Padre Soler, who straddled the late Baroque and early Classical, whilst the rest of the works were all written after 1889. Lorelle’s programme note relieved us (me, for one) of our ignorance: basically, Scarlatti’s demise precipitated a drastic decline in Spanish piano music, which had to wait until the late nineteenth century for its renaissance.

The programme was neatly structured: the first five of the six items were played in order of composition; the third and sixth, respectively concluding the two halves, were Books III and IV of Albéniz’s Iberia. That puts Book IV out of time sequence, but with good reason: it’s the final instalment of arguably the supreme masterpiece of Spanish piano music; so how else should this  recital end?

I had thought that a good starting-point might have been a Scarlatti sonata, but Soler’s Sonatas, R24 and R88 – one sedate and one more mischievous – quickly changed my mind. After all, the debt to Scarlatti was obvious enough, yet there was no doubt that this music was no mere ‘clone’. Lorelle’s crisply forthright approach conjured a sound as close to a harpsichord as a piano can come, illuminating Soler’s assimilation of those distinctive ‘Spanish’ characteristics that so informed his eventual followers.

Listening to the sequence of ‘modern’ pieces, written by four composers over a span of half a century, I was struck by their strong stylistic similarity – it seemed to me almost as if they’d come from the same pen, for the most part varying only in terms of emotional intensity and technical complexity (I am not suggesting there’s anything wrong with familial resemblances!). I guess that it is evidence of ‘not messing with a winning formula’, and that the composers’ other types of works would reveal appreciable divergences. Although I am no expert in this field, I have listened to other lauded interpretations of Iberia – including, of course, the legendary Alicia – and, to my mind, on this showing Lorelle sits very comfortably in such company. She proves herself a truly accomplished advocate, in whose hands all this music is fabulously evocative.

Having been primed, as it were, by Soler, Granados’s Danzas Españolas came as quite a shock; gone were the straitlaces and formal rectitude, supplanted by something more sensuously atmospheric, sinuous with rubato, wider of dynamic range and – in the Rondella – wild, almost savage. I wondered, is the pianist struggling to hold onto the reins – or is she the one resisting the reins? Perhaps both.

Thence to Iberia, Book III, which opens with El Albaicin, familiar to many through Arbos’s lush, some disparagingly say ‘picture postcard’ orchestration. Lorelle’s dancing digits made it much ‘nervier’, with startlingly jagged accents and a real feel for the music’s mysterious nocturnal colours. In El Polo, the upbeat, syncopated song-tune is set against a twitching rhythm, which Lorelle brought to a fearful, discordant crisis, and thereby introduced us to the element of ‘danger’, the violence of the passions simmering in, and sometimes erupting from, the music of Spain. Lavapies took us deeper into this territory, its utterly uncensored, riotous portrayal of local low-life on the razzle given a hectic, no-holds-barred rendition by Lorelle.

After the interval came a breath of fresh air: Falla’s Cuatro Piezas Españolas betrayed no sign of ‘danger’. Aragonesa was open-hearted and gay, Lorelle tracing a sequence of subtly varied moods, while Cubana swung, song-like, its shifts of tempo marvellously negotiated, and ever with a spring in its step. The opening of her Montañesa evoked (in my mind at least) a ‘close call/remote reply’ duologue in the manner of Berlioz’s Scène aux Champs. Its slow, meditative progression, briefly interrupted by the flashing of brilliant delight, before floating into the misty distance, was sheer magic. The final Andaluza was vigorous and dissonant, with every note of the busy deep bass clearly delineated. Lorelle kept the fire blazing in its belly even in the slower central episode, and she gave a commendably overflowing full measure to the movement’s huge, superbly wrought climax.

The form of each one of Mompou’s Canciones y Danzas – a slow song followed by a quick dance – reminded me of the dumka (as per Dvořák’s Dumky Trio). No.1 starts as a simple folk-tune, which acquires a contrapuntal companion before a skipping pulse – along with a degree of complexity – develops. Lorelle contrasted this with No.6, which begins in a decidedly dirge-like mood that cuts quite suddenly to the opposite extreme. In Lorelle’s hands, this exceedingly quick and lively music rollicked along with considerable swagger.

And so to the ‘finale’, the last of Iberia’s four books. Lorelle launched Málaga both briskly and opulently, moving fluidly as a series of waves. The music was impassioned, spiced around the edges with a subtle touch of ‘danger’, and forging triumphant climaxes. Her Jerez danced, prey to vehement outbursts, and sensual in the many quieter moments. Again Lorelle showed immense skill in climax-building – and also in coming down afterwards. The concluding, curious ‘pecked’ sequence over a deep bass fairly pricked up its listeners’ ears.

Eritaña began as a fast, festive march, but quickly became rhythmically much more convoluted – listening, it was as well to be mindful that this music represents an uninhibited pub party! Events jostled and overlapped; there was occasionally a feeling of inebriate ‘haze’, but the fevered riot won the day. It is a wonder that Lorelle even coped with the madly mobile, myriad maze of notes, never mind making them evoke the scenario so brilliantly. The fact, though, is that she did just that.

Reverting to the brief CV with which I began, Lorelle’s recital was testimony to what can be achieved with a vision, with ambition, dedication, drive and sheer hard work (not to mention a large dollop of talent). But it was far more than that; the proof of the pudding was that it kept an entire roomful of people transfixed with enchantment for a whole evening. Y vive España!

Paul Serotsky

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