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.