You Heard Them Here First!

Duo BirringerWe are used to the Milverton Concert Society consistently coming up with world-class performers at their Friday concerts, but the first concert of the 2017/2018 season had the added bonus of being the English debut of the Duo Birringer from Germany. Esther (piano) and younger sister Lea (violin) both started playing at age three – Lea went on to study in Salzburg, Esther in Hannover, but although they have separate careers, their close rapport when playing together was magnificently evident in their Milverton programme.

They started with Grieg’s 1865 Sonata in F, and after the two sombre opening piano chords the first movement was launched with great élan by Lea. Her phrasing was exquisite and she had wonderful control of rubato and dynamics. This was fiery and impassioned playing from both but beautifully controlled and articulated. The wistful opening bars of the second movement moved seamlessly into the more declamatory sections and the folk trio passage in the middle was full of brilliance. The balance between the two instruments was exemplary and the final pages of this movement were performed with great panache.

In the finale, the very short fugal passage led into the brilliantly written conclusion – the music sounded abandoned and wild, but these two had everything firmly under control. Overall this is a rather episodic work, with many variations of mood, but Lea and Esther bridged all of the changes with great aplomb and this was wonderful music making.

In Liszt’s two Elégies, transcribed from piano solos, both players excelled. The first, with its wistful semitone phrases gave Lea the chance to show her impeccable double-stopping – the ascending trills at the end were also lovely. The second Elégie has the more unusual harmonies and tonality, and significantly explores the lower register of the violin – here there was just an occasional hint of roughness in Lea’s playing, but in fact this was not out of character with the music and did not detract from my enjoyment. Again, the final trills were superb.

After the interval they played the three Op. 22 Romances by Clara Schumann. The partnership between the two players was exquisite, nowhere better shown than in the third piece. Here, Esther was magnificent, the piano writing is relentless and technically very demanding. While she was showing her mastery of the piano part, Lea was floating effortlessly on top with wonderful variations on a simple melody. This was a brilliant showcase for a very under-rated composer.

To end the evening we heard one of the masterpieces of the violin sonata repertoire, the 1886 work by César Franck. In the first movement, there is actually very little writing for the two instruments together – each is given their own space and both Lea and Esther excelled.

The second movement is turbulent and contains some ferocious writing for both instruments, but honours go to Esther – she played the demanding piano part with sheer bravura, and deserved the respite of the more reflective mood of her role in the third movement. In this movement the violin part becomes more and more impassioned and Lea showed never a sign of strain, her technical assurance allowing her to become truly emotionally involved in the music.

The finale contains the best-known melody from this work, played in canon and swapping between the two instruments as it progresses. The central passage reminded us of the exciting second movement and then the opening theme returned in various tonal and rhythmic guises to take us into the joyful final pages.

The applause was long and thunderous – there was no way we were going to let them go without an encore. This came in the form of the first of Shostakovich’s four Op. 34 Preludes, a spiky, insouciant piece with an amazing couple of bars of double-stopping where it seemed that two tunes were going on at the same time!

A wonderful English debut by two very talented musicians has once more got the Milverton concert series off to a flying start. I eagerly look forward to the rest.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 21/10/17

STUNNING MATURITY

Martin James BartlettIf policemen seem to be getting younger, so do world-class concert pianists. Word had obviously got around, and Milverton Parish Church was packed for last Friday’s concert presented by the Milverton Concert Society. Three years ago at the age of 17, Martin James Bartlett stunned the audience and viewers when he won the BBC Young Musician competition in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. He has gone from strength to strength since then, and his appearance in Milverton is shortly before he goes to the United States to take part in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas. Based on what we heard last Friday, he has a darned good chance of winning!

His programme was very varied, covering a huge timespan and widely differing styles of music. He opened with the famous Partita No. 2 in C Minor by Bach and he had the audience gripped from start to finish. Originally for harpsichord of course, this piece translates well to the piano, especially at the hands of someone so totally inside the music as Martin was. The opening was sonorous, his articulation was crystal clear, nowhere more so than in the two-part fugue which concludes the first movement. In the Sarabande his playing was calm and controlled, yet it flowed freely and the melodic lines were beautifully crafted. Time and time again I was struck by the clarity of line, precision coupled with bravura in the final movement and the way in which he demonstrated the humour in the writing with real vigour. If he had played nothing else that night, this performance marked him out as a superbly mature artist with a huge talent.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 18 Op. 31 deserves to be more popular than it is, especially if it is played as well as it was last Friday. The first movement was joyous, and Martin’s very restrained use of the pedal continued the clarity and precision of sound which had characterised the Bach. In the second movement the gruff, bumbling figures in the bass line were beautifully played and he made the most of the joyful outbursts and leaps which this movement contains. The Menuetto was gentle and heartfelt – he was absolutely at one with the composer, his soul was obviously in the music. The joyful and prancing finale, with its moments of drama, was played in great style and this was again a stunning performance.

The first half ended with a very different musical genre, the lush and grandiose music of Granados, when Martin played the ‘Love and Death’ movement from that composer’s 1911 ‘Goyescas’ Suite. This is rather an episodic piece, but Martin managed to give it a coherence which lesser players might not have managed. The texture of this music is very rich and thick, but even in the loudest and most declamatory passages the sound was never muddy or congested. Martin’s articulation was wondrous, and the emotional middle section with its mixture of passion and bleakness was superbly played. Phew! We needed that interval.

After a glass of red, I was ready to face Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca Op. 104, a very familiar piece but which was made to sound new and exciting again. Martin once more showed his astonishing ability to span genres. This was Liszt in the grand romantic manner. The playing had all of the flamboyance one would expect but with a steely control and firm grip on the tempi and dynamics. The unexpectedly tranquil ending of the piece was played exquisitely.

Tranquillity fled the building with the harsh, sardonic and angular opening of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, sometimes called the ‘Stalingrad sonata’. This is dissonant, disturbing music and even if the second subject was in a more reflective style, it still contained a feeling of unease and desolation, perfectly realised in Martin’s playing. The second movement is very emotional, also uneasy in places, but also very passionate, almost frenetic in the later passages. Its slow theme is loosely based on a song by Schumann and that tune recurs at the end, bringing the movement to a resigned conclusion.

In the finale Prokofiev unleashes an insistent, menacing theme at the start. In character I was reminded of Bernstein’s music for the ‘rumble’ (gang fight) in ‘West Side Story’ but the whole thing was very Russian. Martin played it with fingers of steel, and the colossal climax of fortissimo octaves brought the house down. The applause was thunderous and long – there was no way that he was going to get away without playing an encore.

This he did – after the raw power of the Prokofiev we were treated to an exquisite performance of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 Number 3 – a wonderful antidote to the previous starkness. If any proof were needed, this showed once again what a fully-rounded musician Martin Bartlett is. He has a long and wonderful career ahead of him, and to hear him play was a real privilege.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 07/05/2017

TRIPLE PLEASURE AT MILVERTON

Vienna Piano TrioThe first concert of 2017 presented by Milverton Concert Society was a winner from start to finish. We heard the renowned Vienna Piano Trio – Austrian born Stefan Mendl on piano, American David McCarroll on violin, and Munich born Matthias Gredler on ‘cello. Stefan was a founder member of the trio (in 1988) and they have a formidable reputation in the chamber music field.

Their first item was the 1786 Trio in G major by Mozart. From the lovely, fluent piano opening onwards it was obvious that the three players were really enjoying the music, and their intimate rapport showed very clearly. They produced a rich sound and their clarity of line was exemplary. This first movement has some unexpected tonal progressions (Mozart experimenting!) and the trio’s perfect ensemble allowed us to savour these. The second movement consists more of musical fragments being tossed around the instruments rather than long flowing lines, again with some unusual key shifts and harmonic resolutions. This was played with great precision, but it did not in any way seem regimented or constrained.

The finale is a ‘theme and variations’ movement, and the performance was joyful throughout. The movement is not melodically complex, but rhythmically demanding – I was particularly struck by Stefan’s virtuoso playing of the piano part; here is the Mozart of the late piano concertos. For all the tonal quirkiness of this piece it sounded perfectly natural and the ensemble sound was gorgeous throughout.

The next item on the programme could not have been more different. Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte Nacht’ (‘Transfigured Night’) written in 1899 was originally for string sextet and then for full string orchestra, but Eduard Steuermann’s transcription for piano trio is now well known and a very worthy addition to the repertoire. It is ‘programme music’ and was inspired by a poem of Richard Dehmel, a work regarded as sexually scandalous at the time of writing. The Lisztian piano opening, then joined by spare, eerie string phrases soon blossoms into impassioned melody and the Vienna Trio gave it their all. Special mention must be made of Matthias’s stunning ‘cello contribution throughout (I felt for him in the Mozart – his role was very constrained there). He produced sounds of true nobility in the passages depicting the loving and forgiving utterances of the man in the poem towards the despairing female character. On the other hand, the impassioned outbursts of despair from the ‘ruined woman’ were equally well presented even in the most fiendishly difficult pages – the trio’s rapport with the music and each other was consummate.

After the interval we moved into the sunny uplands of one of the greatest composers of chamber music, Schubert. His B Flat Trio, Op. 99 was written just before he died and is of large scale, taking almost 40 minutes to perform. This is gracious, smiling music and it was hard to believe that we were hearing only three instruments. This was a big, gorgeous sound, but in no way overblown – perfectly suited to the music and the venue. The violin/’cello octave passages in the first movement were perfect – it sounded like a single two-voiced instrument. Throughout the second movement the balance between the three instruments was masterly, although again we gasped at Matthias’s virtuosity in the sections where the ‘cello was written to be the star.

The eminently danceable tunes of the third movement were given an air of insouciance by all three players and the waltz-rhythm second subject was very graceful and lilting. Simple melodies, but anything but simple to make them sound so easy on the ear.

Throughout the finale, there was again that sense of complete cohesion whether playing delicate phrases or powerful ensemble pages. The players were totally immersed in the music and so were we. The applause was long and loud and deservedly so. The encore of the slow movement of Brahms’s second Trio was a very different musical genre, but this only served to reinforce the versatility of the Vienna Piano.

A wonderful night – thank you, Milverton Concert Society.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 26/11/2016

BIRTHDAY BRILLIANCE

picks1398e_2xLast Friday’s ‘President’s Concert’ presented by the Milverton Concert Society celebrated two birthdays – the 30th year of the Society’s music making in Milverton and the 60th birthday of their energetic and charismatic President, pianist Melvyn Tan. There was even a cake with candles at the end, which also tied in nicely with one of the items he played during the evening. This unassuming and friendly man wowed the near capacity audience with a dazzling display of sheer technical skill and artistic sensitivity in a programme which included one of the towering peaks of the solo piano repertoire, Liszt’s fearsomely challenging Sonata in B Minor.

Melvyn got the first laugh of the evening, when he found he had to lift his own piano lid! The concert opened with a performance of Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 126. We are so used to linking the words ‘bagatelle’ and ‘mere’ that it would be easy to assume that these pieces are slight and trivial offerings – they are not. Late Beethoven is challenging for player and listener alike – the by now profoundly deaf composer was writing pieces which defied the musical conventions of the time and were boldly experimental in structure and tonality, looking forward to Liszt and other innovative composers for the instrument. The first, an Andante in G Major, was played with elegance and the second, with its quirky key and rhythm changes was played with amazing precision and clarity.

I thought that no. 3 started a little stolidly, but soon we heard playing of fluid grace which perfectly realised the composer’s ‘grazioso’ marking. The intensity of the outer sections of the fourth bagatelle was beautifully balanced by the tranquillity of the middle bars and the lilting playing in no. 5 was truly lovely. The Chopin-like configurations of the themes in the final piece were perfectly rendered.

The same composer’s Sonata no. 30 Op. 109 followed and we were treated to steely-fingered brilliance in the opening vivace bars. It’s easy to see why Liszt was such an enthusiastic admirer of these late Beethoven works – as Melvyn navigated flawlessly through the stormy second movement, the fantasia quality of the music, so typical in the later ‘tone poems’ of Liszt came through clearly.
The elegiac melody of the final movement was stated sonorously, and the subsequent variations allowed Melvyn to relish the whole gamut of pianistic styles, and he was totally convincing in all modes. After unleashing a coda of great power he brought the work to a tranquil close with an equally beautiful re-statement of the chorale-like theme which began the movement.

For his 60th birthday, Melvyn commissioned a piece from Jonathan Dove, and in his own words, asked the composer for a ‘good work out’. He got it – the piece ‘Catching Fire’ could easily have been the fate of the piano, so vigorously did Melvyn have to work. Even the page-turner had problems with a recalcitrant copy which would not lie down on the stand, and it’s the first time I have ever seen a world-ranking concert pianist visibly counting beats and bars as he played! The piece suggests flames – sometimes the small flame of a candle, at others a growing blaze of fire almost getting out of control. From bars of tranquillity the music would erupt like bursts of flame and sparks; there were pages of joyful, dance-like figures where the fire was well-behaved. Other sections reminded me of the savage outbursts in Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ where the fires obviously were on the rampage.

This was playing of outstanding virtuosity and the applause was thunderous and well-deserved. I never thought I’d catch myself thinking “Oh well the Liszt will be easier”.

It’s not of course – he just made it sound that way. I didn’t write down one single word during the performance, it wasn’t necessary. My favourite recording until now has been Krystian Zimerman’s from 1995 and although Melvyn’s interpretation may not quite have had all of the bravura and ferocity of that version, it was certainly a totally convincing presentation of the composer’s brilliant invention. I was utterly enthralled and went out the day after to buy the CD (Onyx Records No. 4156) – this was a performance to treasure.

Naturally we would not let Melvyn go without an encore and we were treated to a masterful rendition of Chopin’s well-loved Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66. Then came the bouquets, the champagne and the birthday cake with candles – a very jolly end to an anniversary evening which the Milverton Concert Society deserved without reservation.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 26/11/2016

A Cracking Start!

Scott BrothersThat’s my assessment of the first concert in the 2016/17 season of events being presented by the Milverton Concert Society. The organisers themselves were a little anxious about this opening concert – two young brothers from Manchester playing piano and organ duets is a slightly unusual offering, but the Scott Brothers Duo blew us away with an evening of sheer musical virtuosity and it was great fun to boot. Tom (piano) and Jonathan (organ) both studied at Chetham’s School of Music and later at the Royal Northern College.

As soon as the organ blasted in after the quiet opening bars of Rossini’s ‘Italian Girl in Algiers’ overture (reminiscent of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ symphony) I knew that this was a unique experience in the making! Rossini’s overture is relentless and full of rhythmic traps – I was amazed at how the two widely separated players kept in sync – stunning. I did observe Tom occasionally making micro adjustments in tempo but these were so smoothly and adeptly done that the music didn’t falter in any way.

And so it continued throughout the evening. We heard an astonishing miscellany of pieces in varied music styles, some written specifically for this instrumental combination, others arranged by the brothers Scott. Some of the pieces were totally new to me, and they received powerful advocacy from these two fine musicians. Benjamin Burrows’ “Variations on an Original Theme” was a case in point. After its Bach choral-like statement of the theme, we went through a fascinating succession of ‘spot the style’ variations – Elgar here, Schumann there, a pastorale, a glorious maestoso, a touch of Rachmaninov and a fabulous fugue worthy of Reger at his best. This is a piece which deserves greater popularity.

Pietro Yon is not a name I knew, and despite his beginnings as a Vatican organist, his ‘Concerto Gregoriano’ is the least churchy music imaginable! With echoes of Widor, Saint Saens and Reger, this piece is a glorious romp, not least for its stunning pedals-only cadenza – Jonathan gave us amazing pedal glissandi and only Fred Astaire could have matched what his feet were doing (quite invisibly to us!).

The famous Bach/Gounod ‘Ave Maria’ was a welcome period of tranquillity, and when they played a repeat with more of Gounod’s melody given to the piano part, Tom’s contribution was one of great beauty.

The first half ended with Addinsell’s so-called ‘Warsaw Concerto, with the organ taking the orchestral role. Despite a breathtaking display of pianistic virtuosity by Tom (it might be film music, but you need a top-rank concert pianist to play it) I felt this was the least successful item of the evening. Addinsell’s original orchestral scoring matches the lushness of the Rachmaninov style it was designed to emulate, and I felt that the organ couldn’t quite cope with the demands.

On the other hand, their transcription of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ overture was a triumph from start to finish, as was the gentle rocking ‘Pastorale’ of Guilmant. In this latter piece the theme continually swapped between piano and organ as it became more complex rhythmically and chromatically and the richly sonorous climax led us into a tranquil conclusion – lovely.

Tom Scott’s own composition ‘Timepiece’ inspired by pendulum clocks and their ability to synchronise out of asynchronicity was fascinating and I particularly enjoyed the way, as the themes combined into a thicker texture, the insistent, driving piano rhythms almost forced the music into synchronisation – an ingenious composition.

Mascagni’s famous ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ Intermezzo was beautifully done and the barnstormingly spectacular and virtuosic 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody of Liszt was given the full works to end the evening. Tom’s pyrotechnical piano playing was utterly stunning and the applause was long and rapturous. The encore of a piano duet version of Strauss’s ‘Tritsch Tratsch’ polka was glorious and showed that Jonathan’s piano playing was also of the highest order.

These two unassuming young men gave us an evening of wonderful music played with the highest skill and virtuosity. As I said at the beginning, what a start to the new season – the ‘Milverton Fridays’ just get better and better.

Review by Harold W. Mead, 22/10/2016

And There Were Lights

bushel LightsWe have become accustomed to a certain kind of concert at the events staged by the Milverton Concert Society. What kind? Consummately professional ones, with CD-perfect playing, ‘Wigmore Hall ready’ performances. Did we get one of those last Friday? No. Did it matter? ABSOLUTELY NOT! What we did get were four accomplished and enthusiastic local musicians putting their all into entertaining us, and making a very fine job of it.

‘The Bushel Lights’ is an inspired name for the quartet of Lisa Tustian, Alison Pink, Gareth Dayus-Jones and Christian Hopwood – in the event, the audience was delighted that the four refused to be hidden. They displayed an impressive range of talents, both vocal and instrumental, although sometimes out of their comfort zones!

The programme was a wonderful mixture too – madrigals, solos, and instrumental arrangements covering a huge time span and a wide range of musical genres. Not everything went perfectly; I have to admit that I have heard significantly better string quartets. However the rather unconventional grouping of two violins and two ‘cellos did add a certain something to the Bourée No. 7 from Handel’s Water Music as it did to the ‘Fawlty Towers’ theme. Full marks for sheer brass neck.

Elsewhere in the programme there were some stunningly good performances. Lisa and Gareth were terrific in two vocal duets by Mendelssohn, their fine blend, thoughtful phrasing and beautifully controlled dynamics showing us just what a good composer for the voice he was. Gareth also gave us some lovely Finzi settings of Shakespeare – I loved his rich tone in the forte passages and his phrasing was excellent throughout. He could have been a bit more legato in ‘Who Is Sylvia’ but otherwise this was a fine performance.

There were some idiosyncratic instrumental performances! Alison’s arrangement of Schubert’s ‘Marche Militaire’ for trombone and horn produced a rustic sound and Christian’s trombonic agility was well displayed. The much-maligned recorder was also given a prominent outing when every variety of that instrument from tiny sopranino to full-toned bass was featured in items by Rosseter and Morley. The latter’s ‘Now is the Month of Maying’ also formed the basis for the audience participation, expertly administered by Lisa.

All four of these musicians contributed superbly to the evening, but special mention must be made of Gareth’s superb piano playing in four items by Frank Bridge. Gareth rightly said in his introduction that Bridge is an under-rated composer, and he could not have had a better advocate that night. The playing was agile, sonorous and flamboyant by turns and swaggered to a brilliant finish.

The applause given for this very mixed evening was long and well-deserved. The resulting encore was quite the noisiest and wackiest arrangement of Johann Strauss the Elder’s ‘Radetsky March’ I have ever heard, for eight hands on one piano. It typified the evening – music is both a serious endeavour and entertainment. The Bushel Lights made a fine job of reminding us of that.

Review by Harold Mead

Appearances can be deceptive

Momen-WatermanWhen David Waterman and Mishka Rushdie Momen walked on for Milverton Concert Society’s latest concert on 12th March, the notion of teacher-pupil was irresistible.

But from the first delicate notes from diminutive Momen on the piano, the relationship was clearly much more balanced, with the professorial Waterman at times working hard on the ‘cello to match the much younger pianist in short pieces from Beethoven and Schumann.

Momen’s moment came in her sublime solo performance of Schubert’s intense Fantasie in C Major, her left hand providing a steadying influence on the impatient right to emerge dominant by the end.

It was only after the interval that Waterman revealed to the Milverton church audience that when he was 24 like Momen, he was just starting out on a teaching and performing career which culminated in his 38 years with the Endellion Quartet.

Brahms ‘Cello Sonata no.1 in E Minor is perhaps too familiar from the world’s greatest cellists, but in this case, the piano may have been too forceful, with less rapport between the two performers than might have been expected.

The balance was restored in the final piece, with Waterman’s light and lyrical touch on Dvorak’s Waldesruhe, the piano softer in support.

Review by Jeremy Toye

The Sitkovetsky Piano Trio

SitkovetskyOn Friday last, at St Michael’s Church, the Milverton Concert Society’s audience was treated to a stunning evening of music performed by the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio. The Trio, founded in 2007, has since won international acclaim, and become a group of the first rank, performing at venues in all parts of the globe. Their leader and founder, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, announced before the programme began that he and pianist Wu Qian were joined for the occasion by guest cellist Sébastien Van Kuijk, though their subsequent performance gave no indication that they were not unused to playing together. On the contrary, the ensemble was perfect, each player appearing to show great familiarity with each other’s playing.

They began this Milverton concert with the best known of Josef Haydn’s 45 piano trios, No. 39 in G major, the only one to have acquired a nickname “Gypsy Rondo”, owing to Haydn’s use of gypsy themes in the final movement. This is a delightful and deservedly popular work, which the Sitkovetskys played with much affection. It became apparent in the opening two movements, Andante and Poco adagio, cantabile, that we were in the presence of some very talented and sensitive performers, delicately sharing between them Haydn’s gently alternating themes. It was in the final movement that they showed their great skill in working together, showing their virtuosic skills, rushing to the work’s final coda.

Ravel composed his Piano Trio in A minor between April and August 1914, at St Jean de Luz, in the French Basque country of his birth, though it had been much longer in its planning. The work is fairly traditional in its four movement structure, but Ravel creates a sound world which makes his trio so different than any that had gone before it. The textures are full and rich, using effects such as tremolos, glissandos, and harmonics, which make huge technical demands on all the players, as do the constantly changing and irregular 5/4 and 7/4 rhythms. The Sitkovetskys proved themselves more than able to cope with the challenges of this music, Wu Qian in particular showing dazzling skills at the piano, and such delicacy when at times playing between the two string players who were an octave apart. The sound the Trio produced was sometimes almost orchestral due to the close structures of the composition, and the way that Ravel uses the extreme ranges of each instrument. I don’t think I have ever heard such richness of sound from so small a group in this setting. The 2nd movement, “Pantoum”, was particularly exciting, as was the “Final” ending with a brilliant coda.

The Sitkovetsky Trio’s final offering was Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor. As with Ravel, this was Tchaikovsky’s only composition in this genre, and his only chamber work to include the piano. He had shown great reluctance to write such a work, but the result is one of his finest and most popular works, and the most difficult work for the piano in his entire output. Dedicated to the memory of his friend and mentor Nikolai Rubenstein, who died in 1881, this trio was written in Rome the following year .

The trio has only two movements, the second being an extended set of variations. The opening movement, “elegiac piece”, opens with a solo for the cello, beautifully executed by Sébastien Van Kuijk. This is the main theme, which returns at the very end of the work. It is a dark and brooding melody which the trio developed with great passion and intensity. It is in the following movement, a theme with eleven variations and a finale and coda, where each of the Sitkovetsky’s members were able to show to the full their individual skills. The piano opens with the rather majestic theme, soon to be joined by the violin and cello. The work then progresses though a series of variations in which the players seem to take it in turns to play the dominant role. We get further and further away from the lugubrious tone set by the beginning of the work, until in Variation VI, Tempo di Valse, the mood is positively joyous and the players really began to enjoy themselves, Wu Qian particularly powerful on the piano. The fugue, two variations later, is a remarkable and thrilling construction which they appeared to relish. Wu Qian again shone in the “mazurk a” variation, as did Alexander Sitkovetsky himself in the moderato section which followed. In the final section the mood is ecstatic and there was some beautiful and breathtaking playing from these three young artists creating a clamorous sound, but which was never but never lacking in clarity, in which Tchaikovsky the symphonist came through strongly, until finally, with a sudden return to the original minor key, the work ends with the funereal theme, again announced by the cello.

This was an extraordinarily entertaining evening of music, given by three young people who are most gifted exponents of their art. One can only thank Milverton Concert Society once again for providing us with the opportunity to hear performances by musicians of such a high standard as this.

Review by Chris Markwick

BLOSSOMING TALENT

Blossom StreetCandles, tree lights, mulled wine, mince pies and carols – could Christmas be in the offing perchance? Milverton Concert Society once more presented an evening of fine music to banish the “Bah humbugs!” when ten singers from the highly successful a cappella group ‘Blossom Street’ entertained us last Friday. Led by their founder Hilary Campbell, they performed a lovely programme under the title ‘A Short While for Dreaming’ which heavily featured the music of Peter Warlock. The other composers presented also fitted in very well with what was a well-chosen list of items, and the whole evening was a delight.

The sound they produced was characterised by clarity of the individual lines but with a solid and well-balanced ensemble sound. Only occasionally did the tenor line sound a little too prominent, but since it was being so beautifully sung, this was not a major fault! Another feature was the scrupulous attention paid to dynamics, Hilary communicating very clearly what she wanted, and getting it every time.

An item-by-item analysis would be boring, but there were several outstanding numbers which I must mention. The popular ‘Carol of the Bells’ was articulated to perfection and it came up sounding fresh and new, no mean feat for such a frequently performed piece. The sound blend in ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ was sonorous and rich both in harmony and (more difficult) when they were singing in unison. Herbert Howells’s ‘Here is the Little Door’ was truly gorgeous, with the long legato phrases done to perfection. Harmonically this is a killer, and I thought I detected a little uncertainty in the bass pitching at the end.

Warlock’s choral music is not sung as often as it deserves and Hilary’s advocacy was very welcome. The disciplined energy the choir brought to ‘Benedicamus Domine’ was of the finest, and the harmonically fiendish ‘The Spring of the Year’ was coped with very well. The first half ended with the choir distributing themselves about the church for an in-the-round performance of the famous Rachmaninov setting of the Ave Maria ‘Bogoroditse Devo’. The surround sound was stunning, and all of the dynamics from the quietest pianissimo to the massive outburst at ‘Yáko Spása, rodilá’ were spot on.

After the interval, the delights kept coming – the well-known ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’ was perfect, the lovely underpinning sound from the men contrasting with the soaring arcs of sound from the ladies. Rutter’s ‘Quem Pastores’ was a lovely mixture of tightly controlled sound but rhythmic freedom, and the joyful performance of Warlock’s ‘Yarmouth Fair’ was an object lesson in perfect ensemble and diction.

The concert ended with Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’. The story of how this came to be written is now legend – in 1927 the almost broke Warlock and poet Bruce Blunt wrote this as an entry to a carol competition in the Daily Telegraph, and won. The prize money provided them with ‘an immortal carouse’ for Christmas Eve. Hilary took this at a risky very slow tempo, but it paid off. The choir maintained a lovely depth of sound even in the quietest moments (well done basses – you coped with a slight pitch drop!). This was a lovely finish.

Well, not quite – we did get a rollicking encore of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ to round off an evening of great delight.

Review by Harold W. Mead. 13/12/15

Oh No, Not Again!

Sacconi QuartetSpeaking as a reviewer, I’m beginning to get a little fed up with the Milverton Concert Society. They might at least give me a chance to carp a little – to allow me to have a dig at a mediocre performance or a less than top class artiste. (I’d love to be able to use W. S. Gilbert’s gloriously ambiguous greeting to an actor at the interval – “My dear fellow, good isn’t the word!”) But no, they keep on serving up the most amazing evenings, with performers of the highest calibre, and the most recent concert was no exception. The Sacconi Quartet, formed in 2001, presented a programme ranging across the years and different musical styles, to great effect.

There had been some difficulties before the concert, in that the violist Robin Ashwell had been very unwell – this curtailed their ability to rehearse and forced a programme change. In the event, the revised programme was still brilliant and most enjoyable. Starting with a rarity, in that it is by Puccini, a composer one would not normally associate with string quartets, the Sacconi played his short piece ‘I Crisantemi’ (The Chrysanthemums). This short one-movement work is very soulful, and immediately showed the Sacconi’s ability to produce a sonorous, well-blended sound, but one where each line was also crystal clear. A good start to the evening.

In place of the advertised piece by Graham Fitkin, we then heard the well-known Quartettsatz in C Minor by Schubert, a single movement which may have been intended for an entire quartet, but which stands very well on its own. It opens restlessly and stormily, and the Sacconi played it with ferocious intensity, but under total control. The more lyrical second subject was played very elegantly with radiance, and I was particularly impressed by ‘cellist Cara Berridge’s perfectly precise pizzicato (how alliterative!).

To take us up to the interval we then heard one of Haydn’s much loved Op. 76 quartets, No. 1 in G Major. This is elegant writing by the ‘father of the string quartet’ and the Sacconi’s playing was equally elegant and matched the music perfectly. Once more I was impressed by the transparency of the sound, great clarity but a well-blended ensemble. The second movement can invite wallowing in false ‘soulfulness’, but they managed to avoid this, partly by eschewing excessive vibrato – this gave the performance what we are nowadays told is a more authentic sound. The chorale-like beauty of the theme came across, and although the music is quite sparsely written in places there was a depth and nobility to the sound which was just right.

The third movement is a scherzo-like theme and variations – it is rhythmically frolicsome and invites lots of pulling about with the tempo. The Sacconi did this wonderfully, all watching Ben Hancox’s lead like hawks and their ensemble was once again faultless. The finale requires great virtuosity from all players in the fiendishly rapid writing – there is a wild wandering through various keys in the middle until a single tune emerges. Although a simple melody, this called for colossal dexterity from the first violin to cope with its embellishments and the whole work romped to a joyous finish.

When hearing Beethoven’s late works it’s a sobering and astonishing thought that he never heard a note of them except in his head – his deafness by then was total. The Op. 131 Quartet in C Sharp Minor (‘A stark and remote’ key as described by Ben in his opening remarks) is a tribute to his talent in those sad circumstances, but at times one can hear that the music has been affected by his situation. The opening slow fugue is indeed stark, sad and bleak yet hauntingly beautiful. The four voices overlapped, passed fragments back and forward, merged and then diverged again, all with great intensity – hairs on the back of the neck stuff.

Listening to the second movement I suddenly wondered if Elgar knew this piece well? I heard phrases and harmonies which seemed familiar from the ‘Introduction and Allegro for Strings’ (I’m probably way off the mark!). Again, short motifs handed back and forward, and the lower strings had an equally important part to play in the overall sound.

At this point Beethoven abandoned the conventional four-movement structure and wrote a series of hugely contrasting sets of variations, ending in a sublime adagio in 9/4 time. This is very difficult music to play and the Sacconi encompassed all its demands with great aplomb. The music is episodic and is in no way a flowing narrative. It’s as if the deaf composer was experimenting with new techniques of composition and playing – in places the music seems to be a series of fragments arbitrarily tacked together. Despite this, the players brought a sense of coherence in execution and made great sense of it – their technique was severely tested and I was stunned by their flawless execution of arpeggios across the ensemble, especially the pizzicato ones!

The finale is massive, stormy and forceful, leading to a magisterial coda and ending. The Sacconi thoroughly deserved the long and enthusiastic applause, and quite rightly resisted the calls of ‘Encore’ – anything else would have been superfluous (and an imposition after all that hard work!)

As I said at the beginning, another triumph for Milverton Concert Society, and another opportunity missed for me to say something critical. Oh well, maybe next time, although I doubt it.

Review by Harold W. Mead