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

A Start with a Flourish

BenyounesI always eagerly await the new season from Milverton Concert Society, and this year’s first concert proved to be a great start. Zara Benyounes leads the quartet bearing her name, and the four young ladies (although their publicity picture shows a man!) entertained us splendidly. The incisive opening and clarity of line in Haydn’s ‘Emperor’ Quartet was indicative of what was to come, an evening of lovely music, very well played. In the first movement their ensemble was very close-knit; they were all watching each other like hawks and it paid off. I particularly liked the rustic section with a lovely ‘drone bass’ from the ‘cello.

The second movement is the theme and variations on what we call ‘Austrian Tune’ in the church hymnary, and oddly enough I didn’t hear the tune very well in the opening statement. The first violin was a little too reticent and the other lines dominated. Again, in the first variation, where the tune is given to the second violin (Emily Holland), Zara’s decorative arpeggios were not always cleanly articulated. From then on however, the ensemble sound was much better – the ‘cello of Kim Vaughan was beautifully soulful in the 2nd variation, as was violist Sara Roberts’ contribution in the 3rd.

The third movement minuet doesn’t quite pass the “Are you the O’Reilly” test’ (there’s a Google project for you) but it was played with great elegance. I could visualise the bewigged gentlemen and ladies in their courtly dances. The stormy final movement got off to a forceful and exciting start, and the brilliantly accurate ensemble was maintained throughout even the most rapid and demanding passages – a tour de force.

Next the quartet was joined by pianist Jeremy Young, a man whose musical reputation is of the highest quality and deservedly so. Their first joint offering was Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 in A, which the composer himself published in the quintet arrangement we heard. The balance with the strings was absolutely spot-on throughout, thanks to Jeremy’s very intelligently limited use of the pedal, and not letting the modern Yamaha’s powerful bass output overpower the texture. The first movement cadenza was a virtuoso performance in itself – I asked him at the interval about the cadenzas, and they were all also by Mozart. In the minor key section of the lovely second movement (and its cadenza) there were some very adventurous modulations for a relatively early work, Mozart obviously trying out new effects.

I loved the final movement, with gorgeous lightly skipping piano playing. Where the strings were playing in unison they sounded like one instrument and the whole piece romped to a sprightly and exciting finish.

After the interval we were treated to one of the masterpieces of the piano quintet repertoire, the sumptuous Opus 81 of Dvorak. This work is absolutely chockfull of lovely tunes spilling over one another. From the rich ‘cello opening onwards we heard a solid, beautiful sound, full of dramatic urgency, the wonderful writing fully exploited and presented for our sheer enjoyment.

There are no inequalities in this work – Dvorak gives everyone a chance to shine and lead the ensemble. All five players were well up to the task and this opening movement produced wonderful contrasts between the dramatic and lush passages and the more tranquil sections, all beautifully balanced between the players.

The lower strings shone in the melancholy tune which opens the second movement. I loved the sheer elegance of the playing in the flowing second subject, and was particularly taken with the two-note arpeggios from the strings over Jeremy’s limpid piano sound. The livelier dance section was a joy, the precision of the ensemble even in the fiercest accelerando bars a revelation.

I gave up taking notes for the jolly, dancing scherzo and the exuberant finale – I knew I was not going to find anything to criticise, so I just sat back and enjoyed the glorious music, superbly played. Thanks to the Society for once more bringing us players of not just the highest technical brilliance, but true artists, able to communicate their joy and love of music in their performance.

More, please.

Review by Harold W. Mead

WORTH THREE IN THE BUSCH

Revised photo of Busch EnsembleThe Milverton Concert Society never fails to provide first class evenings of fine music. Last Friday kept up this tradition with a top-rate piano trio, the Busch Ensemble, playing Debussy, Schubert and a work by Adolf Busch after whom the trio is named. The Ensemble demonstrates the true internationalism of music – pianist Omri Epstein and ‘cellist Ori Epstein are Israeli brothers and violinist Mathieu van Bellen is from the Netherlands. They have been playing together since 2012, and Mathieu’s instrument is a fine Guadagnini violin once owned by Adolf Busch himself.

The evening opened with Debussy’s G Minor Trio from 1880, written when the composer was 18. The opening bars showed us that least as far as technique is concerned, the Busch Ensemble are up there with the best – perfect balance between the lines, a golden tone and fine legato playing. There were hints in the piano writing of the compositional style which Debussy would develop later, but for the most part this is romantic music which falls very easily on the ear. The intense communication between the three players was obvious throughout the evening and their ensemble playing could not be faulted. The quirky Scherzo was played with panache and insouciance and the opening ‘cello theme of the 3rd movement was gorgeous. This was ‘salon music’ (I’m not being in any way derogatory here) of the highest quality, the lushly romantic tunes being played with real fire. The urgent, busy opening of the final movement led to an explosion of passionate playing for the first half of the movement. Then a series of spare, unison notes from the violin and ‘cello took us into the closing section, becoming increasingly fiery but played with finely controlled intensity.

Adolf Busch fled Hitler’s Germany in 1927 and settled in the United States. Although a contemporary of composers such as Webern, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and others writing in very ‘modernist’ musical idioms, Busch wrote this trio in a backward-looking way as if to say ‘the old methods can still produce some fine music’. The opening themes are lush, occasionally with hints of Brahms and distinct echoes of Reger. The dramatic passages were declaimed with great verve and faultless ensemble, the stormy and occasionally furious writing being played with amazing intensity.

I was most impressed by the precision of the violin and ‘cello pizzicato opening to the 2nd movement – it was as if one person was playing both instruments. As the movement developed we heard spiky phrases with forceful marcato followed by more mellifluous legato passages, all played beautifully with wonderful rapport between the trio. The start of the third movement wanders harmonically, with strange intervals and restless harmonies as if the music is seeking repose and consolation but not quite finding it. Eventually, after another fine duet from the two stringed instruments we were finally led to a calmer, more contented territory and a peaceful conclusion.

The finale is fugal throughout, constantly building towards a climax, but strictly following the classic rules of fugue writing. The occasional periods of quiet respite only served as launch pads for more robust pages, all played with demonic intensity and sheer musicality. This is a work I did not know before, and I will want to explore it again.

After the interval we were treated to one of the pinnacles of trio writing, the incomparable 1827 trio in E Flat by Schubert, who was tragically destined to die a year later. The Busch launched this with great bravura, revelling in the lushness of the writing and with great technical virtuosity and first class ensemble even in the most ferociously demanding passages. In the second movement a beautiful ‘cello statement of the opening melody was equally beautifully echoed by the piano. The final fortissimo statement of the theme by all three instruments was of almost frightening intensity.

The third movement starts with the simplest of melodic material and builds into a wonderfully sonorous fabric. The players wove this tapestry while keeping all of its threads clearly audible – I enjoyed the passage near the end where a lovely legato ‘cello line is supported by cheeky arpeggios from the other two instruments. The Finale contains some of Schubert’s finest piano writing, and Omri revelled in the swirls of arpeggios and runs over the solid string lines. The work ended with a gorgeous re-statement of the theme from the second movement and the playing throughout was of the highest calibre.

Was there nothing to complain about? Not really, but I spoke to another member of the audience at the interval. She is herself a professional musician of the highest calibre and she put her finger on the only possible caveat I might have. Technically these three young men are in the highest rank – their virtuosity is self evident. But it’s an occasionally raw, ‘in your face’ technique. My interval companion said that she would love to hear them play these pieces again in ten years time. By then she said their technical prowess would be tempered by musical and interpretative maturity and their music would be all the better for that. I had to agree – however it was a great evening and I thank the Milverton Concert Society once more for a musical experience to treasure.

Review by Harold W. Mead

Coruscating Digitals

pavel_kolesnikovIt’s not just policemen who seem to be getting younger – you can add world-class concert pianists to that list. I had the sheer pleasure of being in Milverton Church last Friday to hear Pavel Kolesnikov produce a stunning display of keyboard virtuosity and utter musical poetry. He is a wonderfully unassuming young man, looking like Harry Potter with a Simon Rattle hair-do, but in his remarks before each piece he played you could hear not only his deep understanding of the music, but also an intense love for his art.

This was billed as ‘The President’s Concert’. Usually this means an appearance by the Milverton Concert Society’s President Melvyn Tan, but this time he sent a deputy! And what a deputy – the rather bizarre title of this review comes from a 19th century description in the Boston ‘Globe’ of a concert given by the virtuoso pianist Sigismund Thalberg. I couldn’t better it as a phrase to describe what we heard from Pavel.

He opened the programme with Mozart’s 1785 Fantasia in C Minor, a piece which, in places, looks forward to Beethoven and is technically challenging. The decisive opening passages were measured and beautifully controlled. Throughout this performance we heard flawless articulation and perfect dynamics – Pavel kept the texture brilliantly clear by extremely good use of the pedal, never allowing a single note or phrase to become muddied. This was a joy to listen to.

The published programme was then diverted from – we had expected to hear two works by the mystical Russian composer Scriabin, but Pavel explained that he had reconsidered these and had come the conclusion that they didn’t fit with what he wanted the concert to impart. Before telling us what he would play in their place, he brought forward the Beethoven Opus 111 Sonata from the second half of the concert. Again I was riveted by the beautiful texture of the sound in the first movement, the inner voices coming out clearly but in perfect balance with what was going on around them. The second movement is a Beethoven enigma – anyone switching on the radio and coming in to this music would be hard pressed to identify its composer. It is stormy, brilliant and has definite pre-echoes of Liszt. Pavel’s performance of this music was a tour de force – every note crystal clear, passionate playing with total mastery of the instrument.

After the interval, in place of the Scriabin, we heard three of Chopin’s Mazurkas. Before playing them, Pavel said that the Mazurkas were a very rich vein of wonderful music from that composer but tended to be neglected compared to say the Nocturnes or the Polonaises. His advocacy of these pieces was borne out by his playing – note perfect but in no way robotic. Rubato was there but never excessive, and this was lovely playing.

The final item was Schumann’s monumental Fantasy in C Major, this composer’s finest work for the piano. I don’t want to sound boring, but again this was pianistic perfection. Pavel unleashed the volleys of left hand arpeggios in the first movement with great control but also great passion. The sound he produced in the second movement was majestic, sonorous and never cloudy or congested. This movement’s terrifying coda was handled with bravura and aplomb. The contrasts in the finale between the mighty, declamatory passages and the quiet legato melodies showed that Pavel has a quite outstanding musical maturity well beyond his years. The applause was clamorous and deservedly extended. The encore of Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C Sharp Minor was a lovely end to the evening.

Once again, Milverton Concert Society has hit the bullseye with a concert of the highest international standard. Keep it up!

Review by Harold W. Mead

14/02/2015

Christmas Virtuosity – and Fun!

maddy-1-revYou can always rely on the Milverton Concert Society to come up with something memorable and entertaining for their Christmas offering, and they didn’t disappoint this year. We’ve had the hugely enjoyable Carnival Band twice before, but this time they were joined by the legendary Maddy Prior, who has been singing with them since 1987. The programme was very varied, and gave all members their chance to shine, much to our enjoyment. I’m not going to give an item by item review, but there were many brilliant moments which must be mentioned, within the context of a totally enjoyable evening of first class music-making.

What struck me very forcibly was that many of the carols we heard were totally familiar but they sounded excitingly different. The reason is that having become so used to hearing them through the filter of smooth, elegant, ‘King’s College Cambridge’ like performances, we forget that many of them are folk carols and were originally sung by ordinary people using popular, even rustic, instruments. The sound we got was refreshingly new and most enjoyable.

Band founder Andy Watts displayed stunning virtuosity on a bewildering variety of wind instruments throughout the evening, but special praise must be awarded to him and to Giles Lewin for flawless articulation on two recorders in ‘The Dancing Robin’ and ‘Entre le Boeuf et L’Ȃne Gris’. The rhythms in the first are very asymmetric and the players’ precision and tight ensemble were truly jaw-dropping. I’ve also never before heard a combination of two sets of bagpipes and a mandolin, but Andy, Giles and Steve Vitale made it sound completely natural!

Maddy Prior’s vocal contribution to the evening was superb, as we would have expected. My only reservation was that at times she seemed to be a bit over-miked and there was an occasional loss of clarity in the words as a result. I also found her unceasing jigging about when the band were playing somewhat distracting, but that just may be me being an old curmudgeon. Apart from her solo brilliance, Maddy blended beautifully with the band in the unaccompanied vocal ensembles. The sound in ‘Shepherds Arise’ was glorious –
sonorous, resonant and pitch perfect. In fact this beautifully balanced and solid ensemble sound was maintained throughout all of the unaccompanied items.

The sound of two shawms (mediaeval reed instruments, like oboes on steroids) was ear-splitting in ‘The Boar’s Head’, a tour de force. ‘A Wassail’ was a gorgeously lilting 3/4 song, extolling the virtues of warming drinks to keep out the winter cold. (The interval wine and mince pies reinforced this concept beautifully – thanks, Milverton!) The idea of applying a jazz format to Marc Antoine Charpentier was brilliantly successful as was the vigorously ‘swung’ version of ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’. The highlight for me was again one of the unaccompanied numbers – ‘Poor Little Jesus’ could easily have become a wallow in sentimentality, but the beautiful harmonies and crisp articulation avoided this.

The hundreds of candles around the church, the buzz of a full house and performers of the highest calibre made this an evening of sheer enjoyment. We are now into what I call the ‘Lullay’ season and I am sure there will be many Christmas concerts all over the place. They’ll have to go some to beat this one.

Review by Harold W. Mead

FRIDAY NIGHT – DEFINITELY MUSIC NIGHT!

4uartetMilverton church was almost full last Friday for the first concert in the new series presented by the energetic and hard-working Milverton Concert Society. I expect opinions about the evening might be somewhat divided. The curmudgeonly could dismiss it as an interminable string of ‘Classic FM potboilers’. On the other hand, those of us old enough to remember ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ on the radio (perhaps even the ‘wireless’) would have revelled nostalgically as musical jewel after jewel was strung out for our delight.

The occasion brought four young singers called ‘4uartet’, all of whom studied music together at the Alexander Gibson Opera School in Scotland. Now going their separate ways musically, they still sing together, and Friday’s concert was a tribute to Shelagh Blackmore, founder member of the Concert Society who died in 2013. Many of her relatives and friends were present on Friday, and I think she would have loved it.

We heard Natalie Montakhab (soprano), Beth MacKay (mezzo), Warren Gillespie (tenor) and Jamie Rock (baritone) accompanied effortlessly and with brilliance by pianist Marc Verter. The very first item was an SATB arrangement of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ from ‘South Pacific’ and I do have to say that initially I was uneasy about the ensemble and balance – Natalie dominated to excess, and it took most of the number for the sound to become a bit more homogenous. Once into solo items, we were able to evaluate each singer individually and none disappointed. Beth gave a dramatic rendering of Carmen’s ‘Habanera’, and if I had been Don José, I would have fallen for her on the spot! When Natalie started singing ‘Vilja’ from ‘The Merry Widow’ I was delighted to hear her using the English translation from the 1960’s Sadler’s Wells production – I wore out my LP of that, listening to June Bronhill.

These four young singers were obviously revelling in the joy of singing and they communicated this joy to the audience. Natalie and James’s ‘Pa –pa-pa- Papageno/Papagena’ from ‘Magic Flute’ was delightful, the famous duet from ‘Lakme’ (think British Airways ad) was as good a performance of this as I have ever heard, and Jamie’s ‘Non Piu Andrai’ from Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ was equally fine.

There was a great deal to enjoy in every number, but I felt that just occasionally, interpretation and understanding of what was being sung about became subservient to the technicalities of the music. Mozart’s incomparable ‘Soave Sia Il Vento’ from ‘Cosí Fan Tutte’ was case in point – yes all the notes were there, the dynamics were scrupulously observed, but I didn’t get the feeling that here were two loving couples facing the heartbreak of separation. I had similar thoughts toward the end of the concert in the quartet from ‘Rigoletto’ – technically good, but lacking some depth of feeling.

On the other hand, Warren’s rendering of Lensky’s aria, sung just before Lensky goes to duel with his best friend Eugene Onegin, was masterly, and if this had been in an actual performance on stage it would have brought the house down. I totally agreed with Natalie’s dislike of people being stuffy and snobby about Gilbert and Sullivan, but her performance of ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ was rhythmically undisciplined. She has a terrific soprano range, but if Sullivan had intended Gianetta to sing a fortissimo top C at the end of ‘Regular Royal Queen’, he would have written it.

The duets were invariably lovely performances – Natalie and Beth were superb in the opening of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and in the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ prayer duet. The inevitable ‘Pearl Fishers’ duet was a triumph for Warren and Jamie, and ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ was also lovely.

The jewel of the evening was in no way operatic – it was Warren’s exquisite performance of the Burns song ‘By Yon Castle Wall’.

I don’t want my critical comments to detract significantly from what was a thoroughly enjoyable evening for me and I am sure everyone who was there. 4uartet gave us their all, and here were four young, good-looking, highly talented and enthusiastic singers every one of whom deserves success in their chosen profession. As I said at the beginning, this was a real Friday Music Night in every sense, and Milverton should be proud of what their Concert Society sets out to do and invariably achieves.

Harold Mead

World-Class Performance

Elizabeth Watts Simon LepperA large and expectant audience crowded into St Michael’s Church, Milverton on 7 March for a concert by soprano Elizabeth Watts and pianist Simon Lepper. Both artists have established and growing international reputations, and travel schedules to match; but since Elizabeth lives near Taunton, and has an enthusiastic local following, the occasion had the atmosphere of a family gathering. It was, by any standards, a triumph.

Elizabeth’s versatility is prodigious: she is equally at home on the operatic stage (most recently as Zerlina in Don Giovanni at Covent Garden), in Baroque and contemporary repertoire, in oratorio, and in major works with orchestra by Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams. But, as winner of the Song Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2007, it was in the realm of the art song that she emerged as a major new talent. She takes great care in devising her own programmes: on this occasion the theme was ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, a story of love, self-sacrifice, rejection – a whole gamut of emotions encompassing joy and sorrow. A varied and coherent choice of songs explored this range of intense feelings; and, most helpfully, translations of all the texts were provided, which greatly assisted understanding and appreciation.

The first group of songs, by Richard Strauss, encompassed a composing career of more than 50 years, including early works and possibly the last piece he wrote. Dreams, memories, tenderness – all were evoked in expressive, chromatically intense music of great dramatic power. Elizabeth Watts managed to give each musical phrase its own unique character, shading and adapting her rich and radiant tone to extract the maximum of meaning from the words, and using a formidable technique to sustain and shape extended soaring lines of melody.

There followed five songs by Henri Duparc, a long-lived composer whose life was blighted by mental illness and who destroyed much of his work: the quality of what remains reinforces the tragedy of this loss. These settings of French Romantic poetry take us to a world of lush sensuality and perfumed luxury, but perhaps the predominant feelings are loss, suffering and unfulfilled longing – promising material for both composer and interpreters! Here it was apparent that Elizabeth Watts is as fine an actor as she is a singer – the intensity of the dramatic presentation equalled the beauty of the singing, and the audience was rapt.

After the interval we heard The Poet’s Echo by Benjamin Britten – a rarely heard setting of poems by Pushkin, composed for Britten’s friends, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband, the legendary cellist (and, evidently, outstanding pianist) Mstislav Rostropovich. Here, too, the theme is lack of fulfilment – the poet seeks to communicate, to find love and understanding, but there is no answer. Musically this is a fascinating work: to complement the rhapsodic, declamatory lines of the soloist, the piano offers, not a conventional accompaniment, but as it were an independent interpretation – intricate, delicate, scintillating – of the words. This is a piece that surely demands repeated listening. It received a passionate and gripping performance, in which Elizabeth Watts showed that she is as much at home with the Russian language as she is with French, German and Spanish.

Tribute must be paid to the outstanding artistry of accompanist Simon Lepper.
Indeed, ‘accompanist’ seems a misnomer: this was a partnership of musical equals. Whether in the muscular Romanticism of Strauss, the impressionistic, quasi-orchestral colourings of Duparc, or the glittering precision of Britten, Simon Lepper’s sensitive, delicate and at times powerful virtuosity was an ideal complement to his musical partner, and their instinctive coordination was a delight to hear.

After so much emotional intensity, the last section of the programme, of works from the Spanish-speaking world, came as a distinct relief – although the underlying theme of unrequited yearning, and loss, was still present, the musical language was less stark. Highlights were Granados’ ‘The Maiden and the Nightingale’ with a melody which clutches at the heartstrings, and the vigorous, tongue-in-cheek ‘El Vito’ by Obradors, where one could almost hear the castanets: an ideal ending to the programme. Here too Elizabeth Watts held the audience in the palm of her hand. In response to the tempestuous applause, the audience was rewarded with two encores: a haunting miniature by Rimsky Korsakov, and the story of perhaps the best-known nightingale in music – who sang in Berkeley Square.

This was an imaginative and original programme which could be enjoyed on different levels – as an exploration of some of the most profound components of human experience, as a comparison of musical styles, or just as a way to revel in beautiful sounds made by two of the finest musicians on the contemporary concert stage. The programme will shortly be heard at London’s Wigmore Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw – this shows the standard aspired to, and achieved, by Milverton Concert Society who deserve the gratitude of the music-lovers of Somerset.

Review by Andrew Carter

Two As One

Anna Blackmur and Tom Poster, MCS Feb 7th 2014The Milverton Concert Society maintained two of its proud records last Saturday. One, to provide a first class evening of musical artistry, and two, to arrange for absolutely atrocious weather for the audience. A gratifyingly large number of people came to Milverton Parish Church to hear a lovely recital by Anna Blackmur (violin) and Tom Poster (piano), two virtuoso musicians in their own right playing together to marvellous effect.

Partners in life as well as in music, Anna and Tom presented a very varied programme, starting with a seldom-played piece of Mozart, his somewhat quirky K379 sonata, which is recorded as having been composed in one hour! It is an odd work, two slow movements in G major bracketing a faster one in G minor, but it deserves to be performed more often, especially if played as well as we heard it. Anna’s rich tone and impeccable double-stopping in the opening led to a soulful melodic line soaring above equally impeccable piano arpeggios from Tom. The stormy allegro movement showed Tom’s brilliance at the keyboard to great effect. (He alluded to the conventional dominance of the piano parts in works of that period in remarks he made later. Also of course, remember that Mozart was first and foremost a virtuoso pianist, and almost certainly wrote with himself in mind).

That said, we heard a true equal partnership between the two players – their obvious constant communication paid off in the most impassioned passages, the ensemble was spot on. The last movement is a set of five variations on a simple descending theme. Just occasionally during these, I thought that the impressive sound from Milverton’s fine Yamaha was just a little over-rich for this Mozart piece. Instruments of the time would have had a lighter, more silvery tone. However, Tom and Anna did the whole work a great service by playing it so beautifully.

Tom Poster, MCS Feb 7th 2014Tom then explained to us that due to some pretty hectic travelling and intensive engagements for Anna, they felt that they had not had time to prepare the Ravel G Major Sonata adequately, and that they would only be playing the middle ‘Blues’ movement. As a substitute we heard Tom play two of Liszt’s arrangements of Schumann songs. As you might expect from Liszt, the keyboard showman, the ‘arrangements’ were somewhat lush and technically terrifying. The description ‘swathed in swirling swarms of arpeggios’ popped somewhat alliteratively into my mind. Whether or not one approves of such treatment, this was a pianistic tour de force, and Tom’s performances were sheer brilliance. Bringing us back to Ravel with a lovely rendition of the ‘Pavane pour une Enfant Defunte’ we then heard the middle movement of that composer’s 1920’s sonata. Anna’s spiky pizzicato and slithery blues phrases were beautifully played – even the somewhat savage dissonances sounded just right. There are some tempestuous passages here, the violin solo singing out over very ‘busy’ piano. Never did one player overpower the other, again the ensemble was finely controlled.

After the interval, we heard Elgar’s fine 1918 Sonata in E minor. The opening is all passion and fire, and we were pinned to our seats by the power both players brought. The glorious tune in the middle of the first movement was really moving. The second movement starts in a very bleak and stark idiom, but soon leads into more melodic territory. Both players brought real power to the build up to the impassioned climaxes, but always under control. I particularly enjoyed the hints of ‘happiness being regained’ towards the end of this movement – Anna’s almost jocular playing of the relevant phrases was just right.

The finale was two players playing as one. A rich ensemble sound right through to the final triumphant pages made this a performance to be savoured.

Finally we heard two of the Heifetz arrangements of tunes from Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’. The first was ‘Bess You Is My Woman Now’, and the arrangement was obviously done to showcase Heifetz’s legendary ability to double stop (play on two strings at once). Anna’s pretty good at it too! This was followed by ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and my only comment here is Wow! The two players were wreathed in smiles at the end of this and so were we. A delicious lollipop of an encore (Elgar’s ‘Salut d’Amour’) put the final cherry on top of the icing on the cake. Lovely playing, lovely performers, lovely evening. No more to say.

Review by Harold W. Mead

Authority and Beauty

Melvyn TanIt’s a coup when a local society can boast a famous patron – Taunton Choral Society has Bryn Terfel, Amici has Elizabeth Watts and the Milverton Concert Society can be justly proud of its President, Melvyn Tan – especially when he comes to Milverton and gives a recital of the calibre and splendour of last Friday evening. The church was, as expected, packed to capacity and the audience’s expectations were fulfilled in every way. This delightful and unassuming man becomes transformed when he sits at the keyboard and he stamped his authority on every note from start to finish.

Schubert’s A Major sonata of 1819 is a delightful and uncomplicated work, starting with a lovely singing melody, and Melvyn’s beautifully articulated playing was spiced with finely judged rubato throughout. The short rising octave passage in the first movement was majestic but not overpowered as it sometimes is, and Melvyn’s expert pedalling kept every line and arpeggio crystal clear. The yearning chords in the slow movement were beautifully played and the whole thing had a lovely wistfulness. The allegro finale is light hearted, but there was also great sonority in the slightly heavier passages, and I was continually struck by just how clear the texture of the sound was throughout.

Schumann’s Op. 12 ‘Fantasiestücke’ (Phantasy Pieces) were next, and these eight short pieces are very popular with pianists and audiences alike. Based on short stories by E. T. A. Hoffman they are not ‘programme music’ as such, but there is supposed to be an element of depiction and narration, a conversation between two characters.

The first, ‘Des Abends’ was played with a limpid tone, genuinely suggesting the peaceful onset of evening, and Melvyn maintained a lovely legato line throughout. The sudden contrast of the dramatic, passionate outpouring of the second piece (‘Soaring’) was masterfully handled. I may be totally wrong in my interpretation of the third piece (‘Warum’ – ‘Why?’), but to me the constantly repeated 6-note figure in this reminded me of an insistent child repeatedly asking ‘but why?’ – an experience many of us will have had!

The grumpiness and quirkyness of ‘Whims’ was followed by really dramatic and passionate playing for the turbulence of ‘In the Night’ and I was struck by how beautifully Melvyn handled the central transition into a more consolatory section which was soon overwhelmed again by agitation. The sixth piece ‘Fable’ alternated slow and frisky tunes and the penultimate ‘Dreams’ Confusions’ had us marvelling at Melvyn’s fabulous articulation and tight control while still allowing the music to sound free and relaxed. The majestic finale with its fine march-like inner section sent us off for our mulled wine and mince pies in very good humour.

The second half was devoted to one of the pinnacles of the romantic piano repertoire, the 24 Preludes of Chopin. These are unique, even within Chopin’s output, and although they follow the pattern of Bach, in that there is a piece for each of the 24 keys, each one is totally different in length and character. This presents a significant interpretative challenge to any pianist, and Melvyn rose to it with great aplomb. In his opening remarks, he said that some of these pieces were ‘very easy’. Not to me they’re not! – but I knew what he meant. Although some of them may not present huge technical problems, that makes the task of the pianist as interpreter all the harder.

What followed was a tour de force – technical brilliance married to real musicality and sympathy with the idiom of the composer. The applause was as wild and enthusiastic as any I have heard at these Milverton events and was totally deserved. Melvyn eventually relented and gave us a lovely rendering of Liszt’s ‘Un Sospiro’ as an encore. This was a lovely end to an evening of wonderful music. Milverton Concert Society is very fortunate in its President and that good fortune was transferred to all who were present that night.

Review by Harold W. Mead

Three Stars in Concert

Brahms Horn TrioIt’s not an unusual happening in the classical music world for soloists with careers and high reputations in their own right to join with others to perform together, and this was the case in the latest concert from the enterprising Milverton Concert Society.  Built around a specific work, the Brahms Trio of 1865 for horn, piano and violin, the evening saw the collaboration of Richard Bayliss, Sam Haywood and Arisa Fujita respectively.  And what a fine evening’s music making it was.  The Brahms was the only work of the night which brought all three together, but the other combinations (perm any 2 from 3!) were all very rewarding in their own right.

The Schumann Adagio for Horn and Piano is a very romantic work, and  the composer himself was pleased with his output in ‘my most fruitful year’ (1849).   Written for the relatively new valved horn, this piece abounds in large and sometimes awkward intervals for the soloist.  It was a cruel start for Richard on a rather chilly autumn evening, and although for the most part he coped amply with the demands, there were occasional fluffs and cracked notes in the Adagio movement.  The Allegro positively exploded on us with a cascade of notes, and this was a joyful performance.  The balance between the two players was generally fine, but I felt that in the slightly slower sections of the second movement, the horn was a little too subdued.  This problem disappeared in the romp of the final pages and the work rounded off splendidly.

Arisa Fujita is one third of the stunningly talented Fujita sisters trio, who have played for us in Milverton.   She and Sam played Beethoven’s Op. 96 Sonata of 1812.  In the first movement the piano seemed to have the best of the writing.  However it soon became clear that the composer knew exactly what he was doing, and what seemed like prosaic interjections by the violin were actually the ‘glue’ of the long phrases and ensured the harmonies were equally well joined up.   That said, Sam really relished the piano part and just occasionally in the first movement he was a little overpowering.  In the second movement, Arisa kept vibrato to the minimum (exactly right for music of this period) and she endowed the rather severe melody with a sad beauty.  The very determined opening of the Scherzo showed the constantly improving communication between the two players.

Brahms Horn Trio 2013 011Beethoven was a little concerned about the technical ability of the player (Pierre Rode) chosen to premiere this piece and made the finale a little less pyrotechnic than he might have done.  It’s a set of variations on a rather rustic tune, and Arisa’s rich sound over a constant stream of fluent and masterly piano playing from Sam showed these two artists to be in perfect accord with each other.  The very jolly coda was a joyous end to a fine performance.

After the interval we were treated (and that is definitely the word) to an exciting and fiery performance of the Brahms Scherzo for violin and piano taken from the so-called ‘F-A-E’ sonata composed for the violinist Joachim by three of his friends.  Sam and Arisa produced wonderful richness and sonority in the slower middle section, leading back to a demonstration of sheer power under perfect control for a virtuoso ending.

The climax of the evening was of course the Brahms Trio, and from the start the ensemble sound was lovely.  There is a feeling of spaciousness in this music, and Brahms said he got the germ of the idea for the first movement while walking in the woods.  Unlike the Schumann we heard earlier, this work was written with the unvalved ‘natural horn’ in  mind, and it was noticeable that in the spiky and rhythmically fiendish Scherzo, many of the more outlandish key changes were left to the violin and piano.  That’s not to say that Richard had it easy – it’s still a virtuoso horn part and he played it very well indeed.  The ensemble sound was consistently fine and the ending of the Scherzo was a tour de force.

The funereal opening chords of the third movement reminded us that Brahms wrote this work to commemorate the death of his mother that year.  These led into a lovely, wistful duet between violin and horn, and the later very sparse lines shared by violin and piano produced an air of real sadness.

In total contrast the finale is cheerful  and bouncy, with the horn producing what are obviously representations of hunting calls.  This is extrovert music and there was wonderful interplay between the three soloists, who produced a melded sound of great beauty and stormed along to a rousing finish.  The applause was deservedly long, and the audience were very clearly in a happy frame of mind.  Quite right too.

Review by Harold W. Mead