On Thursday, 13 November, a young Athenian soprano named Elena Kokka will take to the stage of the Cadogan Hall to give a recital of Bellini, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Cilea and Catalani.
So far, so unremarkable. The concert halls of London bear witness to hundreds such events every season and it would normally pass with perhaps a small notice in the Telegraph and an appreciative nod from season ticket holders.
However, I think it fairly safe to anticipate rather more than polite applause for this particular showcase, for there is a novelty, a delicious twist, which should serve to sell out the hall. Miss Kokka is not only a singer whose training at the Royal College of Music has led to engagements with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Chamber Players. Interwoven with her operatic arias is a lunchtime concert’s-worth of piano pieces: sonatas by Scarlatti, preludes by Rachmaninoff and the mighty First Ballade of Chopin.
In twenty years of concert-going I’ve never heard of anything remotely like this concept being attempted, let alone at one of London’s most prestigious venues. It’s the kind of thing we used to do as University students after a few too many gins – yes, that’s how cool music students are – swopping instruments and usually sounding like a sackful of fighting cats.
Kokka’s Haydn is not the brittle, insipid Haydn of the Historically Informed Performance crowd. It is full-blooded, aristocratic, witty Haydn
The Golden Age pianist Harold Bauer famously switched from the violin to the piano in his early twenties, but I can find no record of his having given a recital using both instruments on the same programme.
So why will this be any different? Well, through the wonder that is modern technology, I’ve been able to have a ‘preview’ of the concert by listening to the few recordings Miss Kokka has posted on YouTube. On the evidence so far, she might just pull it off.
Miss Kokka’s rendering of Chopin’s Etude in C, Op. 10 No. 1, is graceful and limpid. It is by no means the most technically dazzling recording of the piece, but what she lacks in speed, she more than recovers in musical intelligence; her tonal shading is particularly praiseworthy.
Next on the playlist is the first movement of Haydn’s E minor Sonata, Hob. XVI:34. I must admit to having found this a little heavy handed, particularly in the bass, however this could well be a fault of the recording engineer and not the pianist. Miss Kokka’s Haydn is not the brittle, insipid Haydn of the Historically Informed Performance crowd. It is full-blooded, aristocratic, witty Haydn, the musical equivalent of a pre-War Foreign Office Permanent Secretary as opposed to the militant vegan of H.I.P.
I was reminded, rather oddly, of Shura Cherkassky while listening to this. Whilst Miss Kokka does not share his penchant for the (interpretatively) outrageously camp, there is a marked similarity between the two in phrasing and dynamic balance. Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore, perhaps?
She is a throwback to a time when great music existed not within the confines of concert halls, but was a vital entity, red hot blood coursing through its veins
Finally, we have a smattering of Verdi to show off the Athenian chanteuse’s vocal dexterity. Pace, pace mio Dio from La forza del Destino, a barcarolle-like, tragic aria which is on the programme in November, shows Miss Kokka to have a good, if as yet immature voice, especially strong in the higher registers. This is shown off to particularly fine effect during the closing minute of the aria (misero pane … Maledizione!) during which there are shades of Callas.
I would suggest Miss Kokka spend a little more time on her Italian pronunciation, especially should she wish to make a habit of this sort of recital and shall perforce sing more in that language than any other. This is but a minor niggle. She captures the desperate longing of the text beautifully, investing her voice with tremendous pathos and not a little dramatic presence, and the listener is swept along to a hair-raising climax which shows great artistry.
What, then, to make of this Protean Hellene, who so defies categorization and challenges convention? If you are at all able, I would recommend you snap up a ticket and make your way to Sloane Square for what promises to be a fine evening’s entertainment.
That, I think, is the key to understanding Miss Kokka. She is a throwback to a time when great music existed not within the confines of concert halls, like a great tree under preservation order, unable to be touched for fear of disintegrating; but was a vital entity, red hot blood coursing through its veins, defying the audience to engage and enjoy whatever it had to offer. There is a glorious spirit of bravado to Miss Kokka’s music-making, and for that reason alone I urge you to go hear her perform
For more information, and to book tickets, visit cadoganhall.com/event/elena-kokka-141113/