Brass and Four Hands

The last three concerts of 2016 in the Lunchtime Series at the New Walk Museum had one thing in common; they were not of the usual chamber music instrumental formats. At the end of November, the harp was featured. In early December the audience was entertained by the Guildhall Elysium Brass Ensemble.

This ensemble was made up of five young instrumentalists, all presently studying at the London Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Immediately, in an opening Fanfare by Dukas they made their credentials plain. Some years ago, as Brass Bands seemed to be on the decline, there was much worry about the effect this might have on the standard of brass playing in British orchestras. Well ,if the standard of this group is anything to go by, there is little reason for such gloom. The playing of these young musicians had a confidence and vivacity which was utterly winning and which made the hour slide by very quickly.

This was quite an achievement in the circumstances since, for this listener at least, the pleasure brass groups give can swiftly pall, particularly in a small enclosed space. In such a space, one felt that it was difficult to convey a dynamic range much wider than the very loud to the less loud, down to the not so loud. Also, some of the music did not enthral. Ewald’s Brass Quintet at its most Russian had some character . The Adagio on a first hearing was the movement which caught my ear. Elsewhere, however, it seemed to me to be in the main a curiosity.

The same I fear could be said about the brass arrangement of Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. It is undoubtedly a feat to arrange such a piano piece for brass but  Samuel Johnson’s famous quip about dogs walking on two legs came irresistibly to mind, “ that it is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all.” In this instant the lovely Scottish lass of Debussy’s tender and  delicate vision became more akin to a matron digging potatoes.

However, other arrangements were much, much more successful. Tudor music in all its stateliness started the main part of the concert in grand style. Gerswhin’s A Foggy Day  was given a finely improvisatory and jazzy rendering and the wistful  quality of wartime A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square brought out all appropriate nostalgic goose bumps, at least for this elderly bloke. What a lovely melody and lyric this is. And then the concert finished with one of Malcolm Arnold’s wonderfully rumbustious arrangements of Sea Shanties for wind instruments. The programme suggested we were going to get three. The audience, one felt, would have quite happily listened to the other two such a splendid finale was it to a spirited concert.

A fortnight later as I listened to the concert given by the two pianists Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen, two memories came to mind. Firstly, I recalled the occasion when a few years ago they had brought a Leicester International Festival to a conclusion with Stravinsky’s own transcription for four hands  of The Rite of Spring , in  a performance so dynamic that one wondered whether the transcription wasn’t  superior in some ways to the orchestral version. This performance has since been committed to disc, to great acclaim. The second memory, however, was even more pertinent. It was of the Russian pianist Richter playing with Benjamin Britten one of Schubert’s pieces for two pianos, in which two of the greatest musicians of the 20c were taking delight in each other’s wonderful musicianship but above all else in the wonders of the music they were playing.

That was the atmosphere of this concert. Right from the very start in Poulenc’s Sonata, the clarity, the verve of the outer movements and the very Gallic quiet beauty of the slow movement, all was fully realised in a splendidly wake up start to the concert. However, it was in Debussy’s Petite Suite where one’s critical faculties told one that one was listening to something very special. This work had been heard in a summer concert in a performance that I had found frankly disappointing, so heavy handed did it seem. As always, one wondered whether, as an explanation for such dyspeptic feelings, you the listener might have had rather too much to eat. However, in truth the performance of this duo revealed all that I thought ought to have been there and wasn’t. Right from the beginning in the lovely En Beateau this performance had all the lightness of touch and charm the music requires. It was simply enchanting.

In contrast, in the last two pieces, Ravel’s own version of the Rapsodie Espagnole and a version of The Nutcracker Suite, perhaps at times in a not entirely convincing transcription, the virtuosity in combination of these two front rank artists was simply astonishing. The kaleidoscopic showers of notes particularly in the treble were unforgettable and yet the final feeling at the end of the concert was that one had been party to classical music’s equivalent of a jazz jam session, so spontaneous was everything made to feel. One felt it was a privilege to be at such an occasion and that it signed off 2016 in the most memorable fashion possible.


Two Pre-Christmas Gifts

Leicester Music Society Tues. 13th. December.

The distinguished baritone Stephen Varcoe delivers a talk on the music of Gerald Finzi. In his immense discography, the singer has made some memorable CD’s of the composer’s work so it should be an evening of great insight. Visitors are very welcome.  Clarendon Park Congregational  Church, Springfield Rd., off London Rd. 19.30

Lunchtime Concerts Thurs. 15th.December.

Katya Apekishiva  and Charles Owen play a programme of piano music written or arranged for 4 hands. In recent years this duo have given concerts and released recordings of this repertoire, all of which have been received with great acclaim. It should make a fine musical ending to 2016. New Walk Museum 13.00


The Philharmonia November 30th

The other night I was watching a TV programme about the terrifying power of electrical storms which trigger lightning. At times one felt that this concert conducted by Nicholas Collon was the musical equivalent of being struck by a bolt from the sky. If nothing else, it re-inforced the conductor’s reputation not least for insightful  programming of works both different and connected. Here we began with Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, proceeded to Ravel, the former’s short time teacher,  and finished with Walton’s First Symphony, itself influenced, amongst much else,  by things French.

It might be thought in this company that the VW’s piece was the odd man out yet in this performance it was so much more than a serene trip around the cathedral. It was true that the sense of space in the antiphonal moments between the two string orchestras was well realised. This can be difficult to render in the concert hall but the placing of the smaller body of strings to far stage left did give at moments the sense of infinite space. However, also wonderfully communicated were the moments of rich passion in the work. The orchestra’s leader Sarah Oates’ moment or two in the spotlight were especially memorable in this respect but the DMH acoustic gave the whole body of strings opportunities to glow and one gasped at the wonder of what the composer felt to be his new found powers of orchestration as a result of his time with Ravel. By the end of this performance I found myself thinking that no-one had composed anything more beautiful than this work.

Which made what sounds like the electric crack at the opening of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G all the more of a contrast. On the face of it, the brittle and witty jazziness of much of this work could hardly be more different to what had preceded it and, in his welcome return to Leicester, the Swiss  Francesco Piemontesi  gave such features their full due. In its light and beautifully clear tone the Fazioli piano was the ideal instrument for the work. The pianist in the slow movement  also ensured that the instrument conveyed the uniquely French kind of limpid beauty that  Ravel was inspired to create here. It was just rather a pity , when at the end of the movement in the sheerly lovely moment when the cor anglais takes over the melody  and the piano simply embellishes it, that Odette Cotton’s  fine playing was slightly recessed as a result of her being sat directly behind the piano lid. Hence,  the sense of a divine duo was rather lost in the body of the hall. Whatever, it was a fine performance and sent one out at the interval musically refreshed.

Nothing so far, though, had quite prepared one for the visceral impact of the Walton Symphony. To continue the metaphor, this was like being in the middle of the electrical storm. Later I wondered why I had not heard this great work in the concert hall for decades. Could it be more than simple co-incidence, I wondered? Certainly it makes huge demands on an orchestra and no doubt still, 80 years on, rehearsal time. It is not simply the staying power demanded of such sections as the brass but perhaps more importantly the utmost finesse which is required to deliver such things as the needle sharp shifts of rhythm and sudden and witty changes in direction, all this coupled with at the other extreme what became increasingly important in Walton’s music, the rich vein of the romantic , like Ravel never lush but coolly beautiful. Well, as one might expect of this great orchestra, the Philharmonia and Collon delivered all of this on the epic  journey.

At the end there was an extraordinary moment. Last month we heard Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony with its famous isolated chords of an ending which have been known to bring applause before the true end. Walton obviously thought that a good idea. The second movement has a false ending, almost Haydnesque. Then at the end Walton copies Sibelius, albeit with chords that are sharp cracks rather than anything mighty and weighty.  And then there was silence in the Hall! Given that the audience had not quite allowed the moment of reflection that the conductor was looking for at the ending of the Vaughan Williams, this was weird. For an awful moment, I thought Leicester was rejecting Walton. Then began below the characteristic stamping of feet followed by great applause and  I realised, in the last example of the extended metaphor, that perhaps most of the audience had felt as if they had been struck by lightning and for a moment were just simply stunned. A most memorable concert indeed.