Kathryn Stott & Martin Roscoe

Seventh annual Walled City Music Festival off to a thunderous start with two of the UK's finest pianists at University of Ulster Magee's Great Hall

A few years back, on a balmy summer evening, the Walled City Music Festival had a memorable concert by the French piano duo, the Labèque Sisters. The Great Hall at Magee was stiflingly hot and the audience sweltered in the heat, even with all doors and windows opened to allow a slight breeze to blow through.

This year’s festival starts on an indifferent and damp June evening, but the gloom of the evening is quickly dispelled by the bright and thrilling performances of piano duo Kathryn Stott and Martin Roscoe.

Both are soloists in their own right, only occasionally coming together to perform, yet the individual artistry and versatility in their combined showing is wonderfully apparent and the Great Hall audience rises warmly to their intuitive playing on two centre-stage Steinway Grand pianos.

For many the highlight of the evening is Percy Grainger’s arrangement of operatic melodies from Porgy and Bess, including the well-known 'Summertime' and the toe-tapping 'I Got Plenty of Nuttin'. The Gershwin numbers are played alternately with jazzy brashness and dreamy lyricism.

Particularly in 'Summertime' there is wonderful contrast between the flow of the melody as originally introduced and then Roscoe’s repetition of it, played, as Grainger indicated, with a single finger. What would normally be a piano teacher’s bugbear – for who hasn’t seen a child play the piano with only one finger? – here has a dramatic effect, picking out the melodic line.

Martin Roscoe

Beginning with the Mozart Sonata in D and followed by the Rachmaninoff Suite No 2 for two pianos, the programme is historically eclectic. In the latter the two pianists give virtuoso performances of what, in terms of difficulty, is akin to simultaneously playing two Rachmaninoff piano concertos.

The tenderness and fluidity of Rachmaninoff's sweeping melodies in the middle movements contrast strongly with the rhythmic vigour and staccato crispness of the Tarantella Finale. The impact of the final, thundering bars then shakes the walls and floor of the Great Hall before Debussy’s 'Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune', in the composer’s own arrangement, returns the audience to a more peaceful and haunting mood.

The distinctive flute solo that opens the orchestral version of the piece is replicated on the piano, but loses neither its sonority nor its atonal character. As the programme notes narrate, the work remains 'ten minutes that changed the musical world'. And reminiscent too of the balminess of a 'normal' summer evening.

The concert ends with an unexpected encore in 'Brazilian Dance from Scaramouche' by Darius Milhaud, again displaying the rhythmic urgency and precision which the Stott-Roscoe duo makes its own.

Overall, an exciting start to this seventh Walled City Music Festival. Just a shame about the weather.

The Walled City Music Festival continues this weekend across various venues in Derry. For more details visit our Festivals section.