Arts Arts & Books

The London households that host virtuoso musicians

Alexander Karpeyev

Several private houses host concerts to rival the greater venues

The saddest funerals are those that mark the end not only of a life but also of a culture that surrounded it; and an example was the funeral Mass for Monika Saunders which took place a few weeks ago at St Augustine’s Abbey in the depths of rural Surrey.

Monika had the good fortune to own a nearby Arts & Crafts house with a Gertrude Jekyll garden – Woodhouse Copse. And there, for many years, she hosted concerts and staged operas: an activity that might sound Glyndebourne-grand, although the way she did it was more modest and eccentric.

Woodhouse projects could be fraught, but when they worked they had distinctive magic. And while the concerts gave an intimate platform to big names like Thomas Allen and Emma Kirkby, the operas gave opportunities to young unknowns establishing their talent.

Whether Woodhouse music will continue is uncertain: if it doesn’t it will certainly be missed by many. But that said, the kind of home-based concert seasons it delivered aren’t so rare as you’d imagine.

The days of the domestic salon may be gone but several London households offer something similar – including that of Florian Leonhard, an instrument-dealer in whose home I first encountered the young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, long before he was signed by Decca and became a star turn at royal weddings.

It was in the Leonhard house that I heard last week another young cellist, Liav Kerbel, over from America, who hadn’t the charisma of Kanneh-Mason but was memorable for the sharp, New York neurosis he applied (intentionally or otherwise) to Brahms and Beethoven. Think Woody Allen reading Shakespeare.

A more comfortable experience, though not without challenge, was the Russian pianist Alexander Karpeyev playing at another domestic venue: the Marylebone house where Bob and Elizabeth Boas run so many concerts they’re in virtual competition with the Wigmore Hall two streets away.

Karpeyev specialises in the over-the-top virtuosity of Russian composers like Nikolai Medtner. But for this recital he produced a French equivalent: the monumental 1st movement of the so-called Concerto for Solo Piano by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), which is 30 minutes of relentless mid-19th century excess. Exhausting to perform and not much easier to hear.

Karpeyev’s reading wasn’t perfect but it had the measure of the piece: the epic heroism of music so difficult that not many pianists could deliver it exactly as written.

Speaking of death, Alkan’s own demise was one of the most singular in music history: crushed by a falling bookcase (although some authorities suggest a coat-rack). Either way, it was a dismally prosaic end for somebody who worked on so spectacular a scale.