While we are familiar with improvisation in the traditional “jazz” style – or variation and embellishment in the Baroque and Classical styles, we usually think of improvisation occurring over a pre-existing harmonic and melodic structure. Rarely do we experience true extemporisation in live performance – speaking musically without planning or preparation, creating melodic pathways and building bridges with no road map, truly composing what is in the mind, speaking in the immediate moment, and also having a larger perspective of the shape and direction of new form. Is that complex? And this is not just for a few minutes – but for a full recital. Extemporisation must surely be the ultimate art form for a solo performer?
Vladimir Ashkenazy has described the music of Mark Isaacs as “highly inventive and touching” and “his gift is so unusual”. Although today it seems that composing miniatures and small musical portraits is highly popular, Isaacs’ work is sophisticated and grand in quality and design. He began his performance with a mature creation of melodic shape and harmonic sequences, extraordinary contrapuntal lines, and an admirable independence of hands as a melodic bass line formed its own solo voice underneath two or three developing higher voices. If Bach were watching, he would have been impressed with the use of Baroque architectural suggestions now in fresh and exciting contemporary settings. The audience was silent and motionless, spellbound – somewhere between awe and anticipation.
Isaacs is a highly esteemed writer for film and orchestra, he thinks colours and timbres, he encourages the grand piano to be his orchestra. As a creator and explorer, he uses the tonal percussive resources of the strings, the woodwork, a full range and depth of pitch, with the sonorities and language learned from his lifelong performance in the widest range of musical styles. The influence of Ravel and Debussy could be felt in orchestral chordal sequences and suspended high celestial tones, dreamy, expressive and thoughtful. As improvisatory passages developed, Isaacs moved into top gear in virtuosic full flight with cadenzas and scale passages providing whirlwinds of excitement. Impressionist colours were felt in one area where Isaacs exploited the low bass notes with rhythmic intensity, with a brief percussive effect, primitive and timeless.
The music of Spain is highly conducive to improvisation, with its exploration of free rhythms and timing, with melodies that encourage ornamentation, and spontaneity. As the mood in one section brought us warm Latin American flavours and flair, never was any rhythmic pattern overly repeated, no mood or suggestion of exotic places over-exploited. Isaacs’ composition flowed and varied naturally through these balanced musical movements.
In performance, Isaacs reveals a warm, honest and unique personality. He is an internationally esteemed pianist, equally a master in the classical and jazz world without bells and whistles. Jazz instrumentalists are often heard vocalising their improvisation as they perform on their instrument – and Isaacs is often heard using his voice, humming spontaneously as melodic ideas evolve. In one movement Isaacs explored a jazz ballad style, with the left hand providing intermittent chordal accents, the right hand freely taking a long lyrical vocal phrase downwards, up and over the left hand, down to the bass, in a continuous and smooth line. Surprising. Inventive.
I felt this program was like an extemporised Symphony for the Piano, conceived as “movements” separated only by essential silences. The final bars came with a sequence of widely voiced, slow chords, calm, spacious, spiritual, suspended. With an appreciative audience wanting to hear more, Isaacs gave us a shimmering, sparkling, strong performance of Ravel’s Ondine to complete a remarkable program.
Julie McErlain reviewed Solo Extempore, performed by pianist Mark Isaacs in the Primrose Potter Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, on December 3, 2021.