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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Irishman's Music Fills Russian Air




Putting aside the pubs, the supermarkets and the St. Patrick's Day parade, Ireland's greatest contribution to the life and culture of Russia probably took place just short of two centuries ago with the arrival of the Irish-born pianist and composer John Field. Largely forgotten both here and elsewhere today, Field spent the greater part of his life playing and writing music in Russia and exerting enormous influence on the Russian musicians of his own time and of the generations that followed.


On Thursday evening, pianist M?ce?l O'Rourke, also an Irishman and a leading contemporary authority on Field's music, will play the first of the composer's seven concertos for piano and orchestra in a concert in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Accompanying him will be the Moscow-based Ensemble XXI, under the direction of yet another Irish musician, Lygia O'Riordan. The ensemble will also play one of Field's piano nocturnes arranged for string orchestra, a piece by 20th century Irish composer Sean ? Riada and Pyotr Tchaikovsky's familiar Serenade for Strings.


Born in Dublin in 1782, John Field made his public debut there as a pianist at the age of 9. Two years later he moved with his family to London, where he became the outstanding pupil of the famed Italian composer and pianist Muzio Clementi. It was in London, as a mere lad of 16, that Field wrote and played the solo part in the premiere of the concerto that O'Rourke is scheduled to play Thursday. A delightfully melodious work, this first major effort of Field's frames variations on a popular Scottish song of the day with a Mozart-like introductory movement and a finale in the spirit of Joseph Haydn.


Field arrived in St. Petersburg with his teacher Clementi in 1803 to demonstrate the pianos that Clementi was then manufacturing in London. His playing there caused such a sensation that he decided to stay on, making Russia his home for the remaining 34 years of his life.


As a composer, Field is best known for inventing the nocturne, a type of solo piece taken up and brilliantly developed by Fr?d?ric Chopin. As a pianist, he must be counted among the first of the great Romantic virtuosos.


"His particular style of making the piano 'sing,' allied to impeccable clarity and lightness of touch, are well documented, and his fame as a virtuoso spread to all of Europe," O'Rourke says.


Chopin once pronounced himself "terribly pleased" to learn that a listener found in his playing "the touch of Field."


In both St. Petersburg and Moscow, Field became a great favorite of the Russian aristocracy, both as a performer and as a teacher of piano. His success led to a lavish and somewhat eccentric lifestyle of fine carriages, Cuban cigars and at least a bottle each day of the best French champagne. Perhaps it was the last of these habits that led to his once being found asleep in the snow when he was due to be performing for the tsar at the Winter Palace.


Although it is rarely acknowledged these days, and was virtually ignored in Soviet times, Field played a major role in establishing the so-called Russian school of piano-playing. Field was known to dislike teaching and confined his efforts mostly to the financially rewarding work of giving lessons to dilettantes among the aristocracy. But he did take on a few pupils with real talent. One was the composer Mikhail Glinka. Another was Alexander Villoing, who went on to teach both Anton Rubinstein, the greatest Russian piano virtuoso of the 19th century, and Felix Blumenfeld, who later exerted a major influence on Vladimir Horowitz.


John Field died in Moscow in 1837 and is buried in the city's Vvedenskoye Cemetery in Lefortovo under an imposing monument, erected, as is inscribed on it in English, "By His grateful Friends and Scholars."


O'Rourke has a particular passion for Field's music and has played and recorded nearly all of it. He is now at work preparing a new edition of the composer's piano concertos. No stranger to Russia, O'Rourke has already reintroduced to this country the 2nd and 4th of Field's concertos, and given the Russian premieres of two outstanding 20th century works, the piano concertos of Englishman Benjamin Britten and Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski.


Educated in Dublin, Paris and Antwerp,Belgium, O'Rourke commands a repertoire of some 50 concertos, including, in addition to Field's seven, all of those written by Mozart and Beethoven. Now, at the age of 51, he is hard at work learning his 51st, Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard concerto in D minor.


Tickets for Thursday's concert at 7 p.m. in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory can be ordered by calling 201-7967 or purchased at the Conservatory box office, 13 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 229-8183. Nearest metros: Pushkinskaya, Arbatskaya, Okhotny Ryad.