Milverton Magic – Again!

10 Parishes 2013Last Friday saw the start of another of the wonderful concert series presented by the Milverton Concert Society. This first concert of the 2103/14 season was also incorporated in to the ’10 Parishes Festival’, but despite the wider publicity this concert must therefore have had, the audience numbers were disappointingly low. A gentleman sitting behind me, a man whose own musical knowledge and skill are extensive, may have summed it up. ‘People should come for the music, not for big names’. Of course, Milverton does present ‘big names’ frequently but perhaps he had a point. What we heard was absolutely first class, and produced by largely local talent, but why not a packed house?

The concert was in two distinct sections – before the interval we heard the Divertimento Quartet – Lynn Carter (Oboe), Mary Eade (Violin), Andrew Gillett (Viola) and Vicky Evans (‘cello). Mozart’s famous F major Oboe Quartet showed why this group is making a name for itself. Lynn’s fine articulation and judgement of dynamics was complemented throughout by a first rate ensemble sound. Their playing was flexible yet precise – it takes great musicianship to make such a fine blend while leaving the metronome in its box. The soulful ‘keening’ of the oboe in the second movement over a solid string base was really lovely, Lynn bringing an almost vocal quality to her playing. The ‘Rondo: Allegro’ third movement was a fine end to this fine performance. A good tune, somewhat bucolic in character, and featuring an avalanche of note-packed runs and arpeggios from the oboe immaculately played, generated well-earned applause.

While Lynn got her breath back, the strings played three movements from the 5-movement C Major Serenade by Dohnanyi. They made a forthright sound in the march-like opening movement, the melody redolent of Hungarian folk music. In the second movement there was some lovely legato playing from the viola over pizzicato violin and ‘cello, and the more agitated middle section was very tightly played, before returning to the flowing tune again. Finally we heard a lovely scrunchy scherzo, with a perpetuum mobile part for the violin in the middle . The music roamed freely through many keys leading a to a final gypsy tune played with great gusto over ostinato ‘cello and viola accompaniment.

Lynn then returned and Divertimento ended their contribution with Malcolm Arnold’s 1957 Oboe Quartet. This started out with a mysterious and sinuous legato oboe melody over the strings. The tune was passed around the instruments, and although these were fragments of the tune, somehow they cohered into a stream of melody – well played.

The second movement has recurring mysterious string chords with interjections from the oboe. The music seemed to be unconnected to any formal key structure, but it didn’t sound atonal, there was tunefulness at work! Towards the end the phrases from the oboe over pizzicato strings had a Debussy-like sound, and Lynn played them beautifully.

The Rondo final has a jaunty, spiky tune which occurs four times in the movement, and the whole thing was brilliant – fine ensemble playing throughout and masterful phrasing and dynamics from the oboe. I went off for my interval drink, happily whistling the ‘spiky’ tune.

The second half featured pianist Alicia Chaffey, who played a challenging programme of Brahms, Ravel and Prokofiev. She is a highly talented young musician, just starting out on what I am sure will be a successful career.

The impassioned opening of Brahms’s Rhapsody No. 1 in B Minor told us we were in for a treat. Brahms can become rather muddied, but Alicia’s judicious use of the pedal meant that she could give the music the ‘welly’ it deserves without losing clarity. I did think that the B Major central section could have been more lyrical – the tempo and dynamics were a little foursquare, but the work came to a beautiful ending.

Ravel’s ‘Jeux d’Eau’ presents a fearsome challenge to any pianist, not just for the prodigious number of notes to be played, but the demands of tonal colour and control of dynamics. The work represents the capriciousness of water and to create this the performer is faced with cascades of arpeggios.

Alicia’s performance was stunningly good, beautifully articulated without as far as I could tell a single splashed note (sorry about the pun – no I’m not). She captured exactly what this piece is about. If I have any criticism at all, a few passages did seem a little hard-driven – more delicacy and skittishness would have made this a perfect performance.

Alicia closed her programme with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D Minor, from 1912. I have to say that although the technical demands of the piece were met with ease, I felt that she was slightly less at home in the musical idiom. She was less ‘inside’ the music, and I wonder if the fact that she was playing from the score rather than from memory may have had this effect.

The first movement with its lovely middle theme showed her at her technical best, and the short but very demanding scherzo was also played with aplomb. The third movement couples sombre chords and tense sounding themes – Alicia’s phrasing and control of the dynamics were particularly fine here and the build up to the climax was very well done.

In the finale I loved the brilliant articulation she brought to the ‘broken’ rhythms, leading into the saucy, jazzy second theme. The finale reprise and code were first class. As I said, a great performance technically, but very slightly lacking in the human touch.

Overall this was a crackingly good evening, as I have come to expect from the Milverton Concert Society – more please.

Review by Harold W. Mead

In The Presence of Greatness

Julia-HwangThe Milverton Concert Society has built up an enviable record of presenting the finest available in terms of musical performers and performances.  Usually these come from established artistes, and we are very fortunate that the Society has a wonderful knack of attracting ‘star’ performers for our delight.  Last Friday however we were entertained by a selection of musicians who are just starting out on their careers (some at a VERY early stage!) but the result was still one of excellence and enjoyment.

We are indeed fortunate that there are dedicated and enthusiastic teachers out there, who willingly give of their time and communicate their love of music and performance to their charges.  I confess I had never heard of ‘The Little Blue Weasels’ until this evening, but now I’m glad I have.  Over a dozen strong, these wonderful children, under the direction of Lisa Tustian and John Young, wowed us with confident, accomplished and funny renditions of two musical classics (well, they are now) ‘One Meat Ball’ and ‘Ocean Commotion’.  The latter, with appropriate depictions of the rolling sea and one of its more frightening denizens, gave us a totally different view of the shark, and made us feel almost sorry for ‘Jaws’ and his kin.  Musically the Blue Weasels were spot on both rhythmically and in pitch and were a real credit to their mentors.  The evening started with ‘Blow Weasel’, a quartet of wind players who are in fact Lisa’s four talented sons – after a fanfare (composed by Lisa) we heard very creditable performances of Faure’s ‘Pavane’ and the jaunty ‘Wallace and Gromit’ theme – well played.

Nat Jenkins, a piano pupil of John Young, then played a Bach prelude, Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ theme and two pieces by contemporary composers – he was obviously rather nervous, but he coped admirably with the demands of the music and public performance.

The Taunton Young Musician competition has revealed some truly magnificent local talent and two of its stars were on display this evening.  Oliver Kelham has a truly lovely tenor voice, with a wonderful ability to ‘float’ the beginnings of his musical phrases.  His singing of ‘Comfort Ye’ and ‘Ev’ry Valley’ from ‘Messiah’ was accomplished and confident, and full of musicality and his own joy in music making.  His articulation of the words was exemplary as was his breath control.  Two songs by Roger Quilter showed us that Oliver promises to be a great interpreter of the English song repertoire – his fine control of dynamics and his expression of the emotions in the songs, show that he already has a musical maturity well beyond his physical years.

The world of opera should also be open to him  – his performance of Donizetti’s ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’ captured the heartfelt hopelessness of the love-stricken Nemorino and was  a fine end to his session.  Yes, there were a couple of noticeable pitch lapses, in the Handel and the Donizetti, but they did not detract from a spell-binding performance.  (He will be singing Alfredo in Somerset Opera’s July presentation of ‘Die Fledermaus’ – well worth an outing).

Weng Soong Tee won the 2012 Taunton Young Musician contest and it’s easy to see why.  The musical world is revelling in an upsurge of brilliantly talented young musicians from the Far East, and this young man is a worthy member of that wave.

The maestoso opening of Rachmaninov’s G Minor Prelude was masterly – precise, brilliant and heroic.  His posture at the keyboard was erect, almost military and evoked the wonderful control of the rhythms and the dynamics which he was displaying.  The varying tone colour (inherent in so much of Rachmaninov) was fully exploited in this performance and I loved every note.

A more contrasting piece than Ravel’s 1901 ‘Jeux D’Eau’ would be hard to imagine, full of musical impressionism and wild leaps of rhythm and harmony.  Ravel headed the score with a quote from Henri de Régnier ‘This is the River God laughing as the water tickles him . . .’

The music, like water, is full of caprice, and Weng’s performance matched its moods to the full.  Sometimes limpid, sometimes playful, we heard cascades, thundering surf, fountains, trickling streams with not a single splashed note from the pianist (sorry for that!)  This was a fully professional and masterly pianist at work and it was privilege to hear him.

‘Follow that’ I muttered to myself, and by golly the 17-year old final performer of the evening did just that, and in spades.  In 2012 Julia Hwang reached the string final of the BBC Young Musician competition, having previously won 6 varied competitions since 2006.  She is preparing for her A-level exams and studies violin with Professor Itzhak Rashkovsky at the RCM in London.

She opened with an impassioned performance of Beethoven’s 1803 Violin Sonata No. 8 in G (dedicated to Tsar Nicholas of Russia).  Her articulation was impeccable – the double-stopping in the lyrical second movement was superb.  I’ve heard many professional performers produce what can only be described as ‘harmonic compromises’ when they double-stop, but Julia’s intonation was faultless.  The ‘perpetuum mobile’ last movement was full of joy and lightness, and she deserved her prolonged applause.

Next we heard Rachmaninov’s 1894 Romance in F minor, one of his ‘Morceaux de Salon’ and Julia exploited the totally Russian romantic lushness of the piece to perfection – again, fantastic double-stopping and a gloriously impassioned performance.

When she announced that her final piece would be Ravel’s ‘Tzigane’ my jaw dropped – this has to be one of the most fiendishly difficult pieces in the entire violin solo repertoire.  The aforesaid inferior maxillary bone almost hit the floor during her performance – until Friday night my favourite performance of this piece was on a CD by the incomparable Anne-Sophie Mutter.  Not any more – Julia’s playing was the best I have ever heard, the wickedly difficult arco/pizzicato arpeggios tossed off with supreme ease.  Vibrato on the harmonics?  Virtually nobody can do that properly, but Julia did, and they were bang in tune too.

This was an evening of the finest music making – a member of the audience, a lady whose knowledge and appreciation of music has my highest regard, said that she felt she ‘was in the presence of greatness’.  I couldn’t agree more, and not just from the solo performers.  Oliver and Julia benefitted hugely from the support of very fine accompaniment – Pam Collins played for Oliver with style, precision and true musicality.  James Drinkwater’s contribution to Julia’s playing was of the highest order – here is a musician to treasure, a true partner at the highest level of musicianship.

I left the concert with my mind in a whirl – I was drained and elated at the same time.  Yes, greatness was present, and I thank the Milverton Concert Society most profoundly.
Review by Harold W. Mead

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.