STREAMS OF MELODY

ivana_gavric_highres_01The programme organisers of the Milverton Concert Society have a deserved reputation for picking winners, often from among the rising generation of British musicians; and the concert on 22 March at Milverton Parish Church showed that they have not lost their touch. Pianist Ivana Gavric, nominated Newcomer of the Year 2011 by BBC Music Magazine following her Wigmore Hall debut, delighted an enthusiastic audience with a well-chosen programme which revealed the qualities both of the artist and of the piano recently acquired by the Society.

Two of the challenges facing any pianist are, first, to make a percussive instrument sustain an extended melody, and second, to conjure a variety of tone colours, from velvety smoothness to sparkling brilliance. In both, Ms Gavric excelled. She began her recital with Maurice Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales – a kaleidoscopic, and enigmatic, series of moods and images conveyed in Ravel’s uniquely subtle and piquant harmonic language, and interpreted on this occasion with great delicacy.

Then we heard Franz Schubert’s A minor Sonata, a sunny and youthful work full of characteristic sudden key changes and unexpected melodic gestures. In the affecting slow movement, effectively a song without words, Ms Gavric really made the piano sing.

Her gift for projecting extended melody was demonstrated even more clearly in Three Petrarch Sonnets by Franz Liszt – transcriptions by the composer of his own songs. Here the rhapsodic, originally vocal, lines on the theme of unrequited love tend to predominate, although the fiery virtuosic outbursts so typical of Liszt were also delivered with seemingly effortless confidence.

The evening concluded with three Lyric Pieces, and an early Sonata, by Edvard Grieg. Ms Gavric explained that after a year concentrating on the music of Janacek, she is now focussing on the Norwegian composer: and she proved an eloquent advocate of this sometimes unfairly neglected music. Technically demanding, alternately tempestuous and appealing, it was given an assured and convincing performance – at least one member of the audience will wish to explore further!

Ms Gavric is already a mature artist and a natural performer; her engaging and informative introductions to each piece lent welcome informality to the concert. Hers is a name to watch!
Review by Andrew Carter

GLORIOUSLY SING NÖEL!

Blossoms 2009_08_04_Band_RAW_010It’s the time of year when Christmas concerts abound and, let’s face it, some are better than others. Perfection is rare, but Milverton Concert Society’s presentation of the ‘Blossom Street’ choir’s ‘Sing Holy Babe’ last Friday came very, very close. ‘Blossom Street’ originated at York University where many of the members were music students (Blossom Street is in York) and moved to London in 2007.

The twelve singers, three in each part and directed by their founder Hilary Campbell, wowed their audience with a candle-lit Christmas evening to remember. The unaccompanied programme was wide ranging – songs from the 16th to the 21st century, from Mexico to Russia were all presented with sheer professionalism and beauty of sound.

Each singer’s voice was obviously of solo quality, yet the blend and ensemble were perfect, the balance across the whole range from deepest bass to top soprano just right. It takes a great deal of hard work to achieve this quality, and it was obvious from the outset that Hilary Campbell is in complete control of every aspect. Her conducting was brilliant, both hands communicating tempo and phrasing, dynamics and interpretation in a wonderful way. And yet her singers weren’t robots, following a computer program – they sounded relaxed, happy and flexible and were visibly enjoying every note they sang.

In an evening full of musical highlights, a few gems shone even more brilliantly. ‘Silent Night’ opened the second half, the singers scattered to all points of the church. The ensemble was still perfect; we all felt we were inside the sound, and no ‘surround sound’ technology could have matched the beauty of what we heard. Rachmaninov’s famous ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ from the Vespers was gorgeously done, the basses’ sound being truly Russian. Of the modern Christmas songs it was a pleasure to hear a selection of Peter Gritton’s arrangements. These are both beautiful and fiendish, but ‘Blossom Street’ made light of the harmonic pitfalls.

A big feature of the evening was a strong emphasis on English composers, and we heard lovely contributions from Finzi and Warlock, Campkin and Pott, and arrangements by Willcocks. Everything about this evening was a delight – the mulled wine and mince pies really hit the spot, the audience were made to feel welcome by the Society members and the whole ambience was complemented by the glorious music. Again, a triumph for Milverton Concert Society – keep it up, we love it!

Review by Harold Mead

Musical Perfection

fujita_trioPerhaps the poor weather kept some away, but those who were in Milverton Church for the Concert Society’s November concert were utterly enthralled last Friday. The Fujita sisters Megumi (piano), Arisa (violin) and Honoka (‘cello) played three masterpieces from three composers, all from memory and with stunning virtuosity. The ensemble playing was immaculate – every entry was spot on, every chord was bang in tune and the balance between the three instruments was as perfect as the music demanded.

And yet this was no sterile, metronomic perfection as you might get from a MIDI file. There was colour in the sound, beautiful phrasing, exciting dynamics and above all sheer beauty of tone from all three players. The communication between them was almost supernatural – it seemed as if all three instruments had combined into one.

Mozart’s C Major Trio (K548, 1788) may not be one of his most profound works but the Fujitas made it sound very worthwhile. The piano has the best of this work, and Megumi’s brilliant articulation was a joy to listen to, beautifully supported by the other two voices.

Clara Schumann’s lovely G Minor Trio (1846) is her greatest achievement and it was given a magnificent performance. The gentle Scherzo sounded playful, the Andante was heart-rendingly moving and the Allegretto finale brought some of the finest and most dramatic chamber playing I have ever heard. Time and time again I marvelled at the paradox of three separate lines each played with total clarity yet combining into a perfect ensemble sound.

The evening ended with Beethoven’s superb ‘Archduke’ trio, and the sisters’ performance was stunning. The fiendish pizzicato sections in the first movement were played with a precision better than any recording I’ve listened to – each note from violin and ‘cello was together to the millisecond, even during a fierce accelerando. From beginning to end this was an ‘Archduke’ to be revelled in and I felt priviliged to be there.

A lovely bonus was the encore of the ‘Allegretto’ by Frank Bridge.

Congratulations to the Milverton Concert Society for bringing such musical riches to our county; long may they continue. A full church would have been preferable, but it is very difficult to get the message out to the largest possible potential audience, and rain doesn’t help!

Review by Harold Mead

PRIZEWINNER PERFORMS

cottetFresh from his success as Second Prizewinner at the prestigious Leeds International Competition, Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel, with cellist Lionel Cottet, delighted the enthusiastic members of Milverton Concert Society at the opening concert of the 2012/13 season in Milverton Church on 5 October.

The programme opened with Beethoven’s youthful Sonata in G minor, a work full of expressive innovation and moods shifting from ominous anticipation to sunny nonchalance. It received a performance of extreme sensitivity, delicacy and virtuosity – ‘too fast’, thought this reviewer before recalling that the composer was scarcely older than the 25-year old performers: this was young men’s music, interpreted appropriately.

There followed some transcriptions of well-known Schubert songs. These too were exquisitely played, with the cello delivering the extended vocal lines with glowing tone, and more exceptional piano playing, especially in the fiendishly difficult ‘Erlkönig’. Yet the concept of transcribing familiar songs somehow failed to convince, however beautiful the result; without the words, some of the musical gestures are difficult to understand.

After the interval, Louis Schwizgebel played an item from his prize-winning programme – Haydn’s Sonata in C, in which the composer indulged his fascination with newly-discovered English pianos with writing that was technically and musically ground-breaking – and challenging. Schwizgebel offered an impeccable performance, full of subtlety and wit, each note delivered with crystalline clarity.

Finally, we heard Brahms’ Sonata in E minor – one of the towering heights of the repertoire for cello and piano, notorious for the difficulty of achieving balance between the two instruments. On this occasion there was no problem – the cello of Lional Cottet predominated, singing out with dramatic power and lyrical intensity. Louis Schwizgebel chose to keep the lid of the piano half-closed, and played with the delicacy and finesse which are clearly his hallmark; but one listener at least felt that a more muscular, Romantic tone was needed. The performance was different from Brahms as usually played, but musically coherent and intriguing, and compelled the listener to re-consider.

As an encore, the audience was treated to the slow movement from Chopin’s Cello Sonata, which brought the evening to a rapt and radiant close.

Footstamping, whoops and cheers are not always heard at concerts of chamber music: on this occasion they were amply justified and deserved.

Review by Andrew Carter

HAPPY NOW?

polmear_ambache_agutterDefine happiness – not easy.  Pursue happiness – we all do it.  Achieve happiness – maybe.  All of which may or not be relevant to the smiles on the faces of the audience last week at the Milverton Concert Society’s superb evening of music and words in the company of Jenny Agutter, Diana Ambache (piano) and Jeremy Polmear (oboe etc).  ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ is an eclectic collection of readings, poems and musical items loosely related to the theme of happiness, and presented in a way which could not fail to generate the aforesaid emotion even if only temporarily.

Jenny Agutter’s poised and wonderfully varied readings produced everything from wry smiles to belly-laughs, as she ranged from Epicurus to John Betjeman, Shakespeare to Roger McGough, Huxley to Gyles Brandreth.  Her range of accents and ability to project the emotions behind the words showed why she is so loved and respected in the theatrical world and we enjoyed every word.

Music has always been a great stimulus to and expression of the vast range of human emotions from the tragic to the comic, and we were treated to an astonishing banquet of virtuosically played items to complement the spoken words.  Husband and wife team Diana Ambache and Jeremy Polmear enthralled and truly entertained us with thoughtful and introspective Bach and Mozart, exuberant Cole Porter and Offenbach and some absolutely stunning playing throughout.  I still don’t understand how wind players do ‘circular breathing’, but Jeremy’s brilliant playing of Lalliet’s variations on ‘The Carnival of Venice’ was a jaw-dropping demonstration.  He and Diana are musicians both of the highest technical calibre and interpretative skill, and these were performances to relish.

This wasn’t just an evening of words and music; it was an evening of sheer enjoyment, involvement of performers and audience, and sociableness.  It made us happy –  which of course was the whole point and substance of the event.  Thank you performers and thank you Milverton Concert Society – you hit the bullseye with this one.

Review by Harold W. Mead

BELLISSIMA BRASS!

bella_trombaOn a rather damp and grey Saturday, Milverton Concert Society brightened things up for a pleasingly large audience with the latest offering in their imaginative 2011/2012 series. The music was provided by ‘Bella Tromba’, four highly talented brass players, whose professional music credentials make for impressive reading. These four young ladies have been playing together for eight years since their student days at the Royal Academy. Their stated goal is to raise awareness of the trumpet’s potential, to seek out old forgotten music and to prompt the composition of new music for their instruments.

The variety of the programme they presented was in itself impressive – the music ranged from the middle of the 16th century to a work written this year and premiered at the concert in the presence of the composer! Interestingly one of the instruments used was a bass trumpet, dating from the early 19th century and its timbre underpinned the harmonies in a unique way.

The playing was at all times highly skilled and professional, but there were some works which came off better than others. The Jacobean pieces (Byrd, Gibbons and Bull) did sound a little bass heavy and slightly ponderous – originally of course they would have been played on ‘natural’ trumpets without valves, which make a lighter, more spirited sound. It was the later works which sat more comfortably with the modern instruments and technique – Kopen’s 1977 ‘Music for 4 Trumpets’ was a tour de force, the 2nd movement played with great agility. The 3rd movement with the muted trumpets exploring strange intervals and unusual harmonies was hauntingly beautiful and the gallop of the last movement showed the quartet’s ensemble playing at its best. There were slight hesitancies in the premiere of Helena Gascoyne’s Quartet No. 1, but this new work was well worth hearing.

The concert ended with blues and swing, from Miles Davis (where the quartet managed to sound very free while actually being very controlled) and a 2011 piece by Paul Robinson which called for and got some very enthusiastic audience participation. This was a most enjoyable concert, and the Society are to be congratulated for bringing such fine talent to our ears.

Review by Harold W. Mead

STUNNING ARTISTRY

bacchus_trioThree established young stars of the British musical firmament delighted the Milverton Concert Society on 20 January in St Michael’s Church with a performance of a quality not often heard even in the world’s most prestigious concert venues.

The Bacchus Trio (Thomas Gould – violin;  James Barralet – cello; Alasdair Beatson – piano) all pursue flourishing solo and recording careers; but their decision in 2009 to form a Trio can now be seen to have been inspired, enabling three acute, sensitive and complementary musical intelligences to work together in perfect synergy.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Trio in C minor – a key with special significance for Beethoven (think of the 5th Symphony) redolent of storm and tempest, contrasting with rays of sunshine in the related key of E flat major. From the outset – a pianissimo, exquisitely phrased statement of the first theme – the ear was captivated by the constantly shifting moods of the music, as well as by the impeccable precision and delicacy of the playing.

The next work in an intriguingly contrasted programme was Liszt’s own arrangement of one of his ‘Years of Pligrimage’ piano pieces – “Obermann’s Valley’. As Thomas Gould said in his introduction, Liszt wrote well – albeit rarely – for strings, understanding their virtuosic and expressive potential; the piece, prefaced by literary questions about the human personality and nature, runs the gamut of emotion from brooding solemnity to exultation. The Bacchus Trio delivered an interpretation full of youthful vigour and passion, the two strings in particular developing rich, warm and sensuous tone.

Brahms’  B major Trio, an early work composed at a time of emotional strain and revised 40 years later, begins with a memorable, soaring Romantic melody; from here until the barnstorming final pages we heard a version of the work which, while lacking nothing in expressiveness – especially in the stillness of the slow movement – was characterised by an almost classical poise, eschewing any hint of the overblown grandiloquence to which some Brahms interpreters are tempted….

A scintillating climax to the evening was provided by James Barralet’s arrangement of Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante (originally for cello and piano).  This unashamed showpiece gave all instruments the chance to shine, but special tribute must be paid to the extraordinary delicacy, fluency and grace of the piano playing of Alasdair Beatson.

Thanks are due to Milverton Concert Society for making such a memorable musical experience available to a local audience – and, it must be said, for acquiring a new piano of such quality. The next concert – Bella Tromba, an all girl brass quartet with a lively programme for all the family – is on 18 February at 1200 at St Michael’s.

Review by Andrew Carter

MASTERFUL PERFORMANCE

melvyn_guyMembers of Milverton Concert Society enjoyed a special treat at St Michael’s Church on 23 September when their distinguished Honorary President, pianist Melvyn Tan, and the brilliant young cellist, Guy Johnston, performed an enthralling programme of masterpieces from the 19th century.

Beethoven’s Sonata in C, spare and impressionistic in its ground-breaking style, received an interpretation full of finesse and delicacy, with radiant cello tone. From the very first notes – a solo cello tune – the ear was captivated by Beethoven’s ability to generate intense emotion with economy of means. Two pieces by the young Rachmaninov combined soaring melodies with dramatic piano writing, giving a foretaste of the virtuoso composer’s later works. The second piece, Danse Orientale, recalled the fascination with Central Asia and beyond of many Russian composers of the period, such as Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Mendelssohn’s D major Sonata, imbued with cheerfulness and good humour, exploited the capacity of the cello for both passionate, sustained melody and technical virtuosity, while the piano part was full of the glittering cascades of notes which, in so much of this composer’s work, have been the delight – and terror – of generations of pianists. Both artists surmounted the challenges with nonchalant ease and infectious enjoyment. Particularly noticeable was the skill with which Mendelssohn used the cello – an instrument which usually supplies the bass – both to underpin the piano part and to sing out as a soloist in its own right. But perhaps the highlight of the evening was the D Major Sonata by Anton Rubinstein, a famous pianist who wanted – judging by this work, with justice – to be remembered as a composer. Full of tenderness, passion and charm, it offered a fascinating stylistic contrast. The final movement recalled the sparkling effervescence of Mendelssohn (whom Rubinstein met on several occasions), whereas the slow movement, both heartfelt and tinged with melancholy, clearly looks forward to the music of Tchaikovsky.

To play chamber music successfully requires not only mastery of one’s instrument but also the ability to relate instinctively and sympathetically to the other musician. In the case of cello and piano there is a special challenge in that the low register of the cello can be overwhelmed by the piano, and great care and skill is needed to avoid this. In all these respects Melvyn Tan and Guy Johnston produced music-making of the highest order. The near capacity audience responded with stormy applause.