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Stefan Cassomenos: Prints and Mirrrors

by Julie McErlain

Concerts regularly held at the magnificent state heritage-listed Beleura House are a very special experience. Built in 1863, this classic Italianate villa welcomes lovers of art and history to admire the gardens and original interiors of the country home of composer John Tallis, and hear Melbourne’s finest musicians in an extensive all-year round program, with a bonus treat of sharing a fine silver service tea with French pastries and macaroons. Probably the most significant attraction for concert pianists, is the intimate music salon, The Pavilion, which is home to two uniquely designed Stuart grand pianos specially commissioned by Beleura, with their extended size and keyboard range allowing performers new tonal possibilities to explore. Stefan Cassomenos astutely chose a program to complement the Autumn colours and sunshine of the day, with music whose inspiration came from the historical flavours and traditions of European art and culture.

Into this dreamlike and colourful world of Autumn in historic Beleura, how perfect were Debussy’s Les Estampes, three sensuous and impressionistic musical portraits, where Cassomenos took us on an exotic journey from the Far East (Pagodes), to Spain (La Soirée dans Grenade), returning to his home in France with Jardins sous la pluie. The Stuart piano allowed Cassomenos to exploit atmospheric heights with ringing upper chords and high repeated motifs, and to take us into new sonic depths with powerful sustaining auras in low bass steps. Inner modal melodies were given a forthright contrasting tone colour, with balanced accompanying patterns adding sensitivity and distant visions. An Evening in Granada is more suggestive of the colour and flavour of Spain with its repeated lilting habanera dance rhythm echoing through every octave of the Stuart piano. Cassomenos augmented the pictorial story, using the instrument’s timbres to portray the passion and freedom of the soul of the dance. Rapid short light staccato patterns of Gardens In The Rain leapt and flew with incessant movement, highlighting Cassomenos’ virtuosity, energy and flair.

Composed in 2012, Studies in Odd Times, by Adelaide composer Anna Cawrse can ambiguously represent very certain musical odd times in these continuing uncertain times. Loosely based on Bartok’s 6 Dances in Bulgarian Rhythms, these miniatures were highly engaging, colourful and fresh, with innovative textures, joyful shapes and sparkle. Cassomenos feels very at home with the syncopated dance beats and timings of traditional Greek folk music and we shared that joie de vivre. The insistent walking beats and flowing steps of Nightshade allowed much tonal colour to be produced, while Stomp brought a stronger dynamic and energy with a clear 7-time meter and the accented footfall of dance steps. Above repeated short left hand ostinato patterns of Whimsy, the upper melodies climbed and searched in gentle shifts and wanderings. Bittersweet flowed with a steady pulse and broody repeated bass pattern, alternating a feel of groups of 5 and 3 beats, with fortified right hand accents adding insistent declarations and percussive colour. True to expectations, Twitch built a sharp, pointed and fragmented picture with scattered snippets and agitated motives. Drive was indeed a stimulating and new short journey, with a central single repeated note repeated at length while surrounded by stark but exciting open shapes and double octaves. Pulse beats were accented in repeated triple and duple meters creating much momentum and energy. Wonderful piano music.

Cassomenos then acknowledged the Australian composer, pianist and educator Sonny Chua (1967 – 2020) as a mentor whose works inspired him to compose from the age of seven. As a tribute to Chua, he performed his set of Genesis – Transcendental Studies. In The Beginning (“let there be light”) repeated upper melodies rippled as chords built up eventually becoming a descending, deep sonic blur. The Fruit gave us some quirky clusters and staccato fragments, almost percussive, enjoyable to taste, while flowing and surging, relentless natural forces were felt in The Rain with a clear section of regular, scattered tones imitating clear drops of water. The Coat (Allegro) was a true coat of many colours with vibrant full textures, surges in dynamics, balanced design and richly satisfying material.

The concluding work was one of Ravel’s finest impressionist pieces, the five movement work Miroirs.  Cassomenos delivered a breathtakingly beautiful and iridescent performance. Listeners were motionless, spellbound, lost in a faraway place, somewhere between Beleura’s historic gardens and near a rainbow. Noctuelles revealed smooth glossy colours and fleeting silvery reflections, while Oiseaux Tristes revealed much tone colour in expressive cadenzas and moments of sombre, distant solitude. Cassomenos hypnotised us with his introspective and affective colourations here as the Stuart piano added a high metallic edge to shimmering virtuosic trills and tremolos, and resonant lower keys took us further into a deep, calm and peaceful underworld in Une barque sur l’océan. Percussive repeated notes gave Alborado del gracio modern, adventurous and dramatic exotic chords with a highly emphasised melody projected from a refined and colourful accompaniment. In the final piece, La vallee des cloches, strong bell -like tones and lyrical melodies were exposed following a mesmerising and hypnotic soft opening. In the warm tonal harmony we held our breath, finally sinking into envelopes of echoes and sustained overtones.

There were many shouts of Bravo from the full house.

Photo supplied.


Julie McErlain reviewed Stefan Cassomenos’ piano recital Prints and Mirrors, given at Beleura House, Mornington on May 20, 2021.

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