It was some years since I had heard what I remembered as two fine artists, Matthew Trusler and Ashley Wass , so I was very much looking forward to hearing them again, this time as a duo. The programme looked to be a fascinating one, Beethoven in his sunniest of moods, Vaughan Williams at his most ecstatic and Prokofiev at his most engaging with his unique blend of the lyrical and the acerbic. In the event though, things did not turn out quite as expected.
It is true that there was much to admire in the performance of the ‘Spring Sonata’. There was a fine drive to the playing. In the outer movements there were many moments when the rhythm was precisely pointed. Performed with similar precision, the wit of the very short scherzo came across quite delightfully. However, this piece is one of those where the title attached to it surely does tell one something about the essence of the music. Much of the Sonata seems to reflect Beethoven at his most radiant, almost relaxed, and to this listener at least the duo were slightly less successful at conveying that aspect of the piece. It wasn’t exactly a hard driven performance but there were a number of moments where one felt that a more relaxed and expansive approach might have brought dividends, particularly in the slow movement. The dynamic range seemed, at least from the middle of the hall, rather narrow, very much in one’s face and the sound was often rich in the bass but slightly lacking in warmth at the top. Neither violin nor piano seemed very much inclined to really sing.
So, when one came to Vaughan Williams’ lark, one wondered what kind of ascent it would have, particularly since one could not see quite how the sense of space created in a concert hall with an orchestra could be replicated with just two instruments in a small intimate hall. Add to that the fact that at the opening of the work, as the musicians sought to establish an appropriate atmosphere, there were constant interruptions from within the audience and for a short time one really feared for the continuation of the concert. One cannot speak too highly about the forbearance of these artists in a very difficult situation as they persevered with the performance. Then, miraculously, the interruptions gradually ceased and, perhaps because of our being reminded that someone had been possibly suffering amongst us, everything really did take wing in a most remarkable manner. This was music making that seemed to touch the divine, in which the lack of an orchestra was as nothing and in which what had gone before was felt as nothing. After the ovation at the end , I thought once again of how extraordinary it is that this genius of a composer is still little known outside the English speaking world. There is a story about Andre Previn conducting the Tallis Fantasia in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic no less. It seems they were so impressed that one musician asked Previn whether the composer had written anything else. Previn , a droll man if ever there is one, is said to have answered “ Only nine symphonies.”
The rest of the concert was pure joy too. The duo clearly relished Prokofiev’s sardonic wit and flair. The pianist had some wonderful moments in the Court Dance which seemed to underline the pomposity of the dancers, the Winter Fairy glistened with icicles and at the end of the selection the Mazurka was played with such verve as to make us all, if the applause was to be believed, wonder at these players’ virtuosity. That was the supposed end to the concert but Matthew Trusler charmingly wondered whether we could spare another three minutes of our time to listen to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smiles’ from ‘Modern Times’. We could and we did. A perfect end.