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Wilton's Music Hall Concert Series 28 June 2005

Strenuous efforts are in hand to make this splendid historic music hall into a regular concert venue (we have enjoyed and reviewed many notable Broomhill Opera productions in this evocative space).

For successful concert enterprises, programming is axiomatic for drawing in the public as well as the critics. For the latter, this was ideal; and there was a good turn-out including members of the local community who listened attentively and clapped every song and instrumental movement until asked after the interval to wait until the end of Denisova and Shostakovich's song cycles.

This was an evening of chamber music duos, with all four artists only coming together at the very end. Contemporary music specialists, more often heard grappling with cutting edge modernism, they gave welcome accounts of 'old fashioned music' (so describe by a composer there) but this was stuff for connoisseurs, all rarities which benefited from Wilton's ideal acoustics.

Fauré's late sonatas (rather like Beethoven's Pastoral given by Brendel at RFH last week) are deceptively uneventful, but the harmonic movement is continuous and they repay closest attention. Ravel's duo sonata (Darragh Morgan & Robin Michael) is likewise elusive, but equally rewarding, and benefits from being seen whilst played. Robin Michael explained that Ravel had made it difficult because he didn't want it played by amateurs! Both performers tonight were fully qualified, he assured us. A violin string which descended because of the summer warmth gave a chance for a second hearing of the movement which represented Debussy & Ravel's tennis games together.

Sarah Leonard demonstrate her versatility. Instead of Duparc as advertised, she gave a Poulenc group, and turned herself into a fourth instrumentalist for Rachmaninov's wordless Vocalise. Shostakovich's Romances for soprano and piano trio made for a glum finish but the rigour of his settings of pessimistic poems by Blok came across powerfully, a reminder of the tribulations suffered in the Soviet era. Sarah Nicolls (who has just released her debut solo CD) was a tower of strength throughout the evening.

The high spot of the concert was a concentrated group of Mandelstam songs by Elena Firsova, who came to England with her composer husband in 1991 and have brought up their children here (Alissa is playing at Cheltenham next week).

Firsova's Winter Songs had you wondering why the combination of voice and cello (the most vocal of string instruments) had not been explored before? Settings of Mandelstam's poems are central to her oeuvre, "His poetry is written in precisely the way I would like to write music", she tells us in the programme. The three songs traversed all cello techniques, harmonics in the first song, running figures, glissandi etc in the hectic second song, double stopping to accompany the last and a poignant coda with harmonics to bring you full circle. Only about ten minutes, but a major contribution to the chamber music repertoire which would be welcomed by listeners everywhere.

The Fidelio Piano Trio
Wilton’s Music Hall July 5th

Darragh Morgan - Violin
Robin Michael - Cello
Mary Dullea - Piano

Debussy Cello Sonata
Arensky Piano Trio
Smirnov Violin Sonata no.2
Ravel Piano Trio

The second concert in the French & Russian Masterpieces series at Wilton’s began with a fine performance of the late-composed Debussy Sonata, and the musicians obtained the balance between playfulness and interplay between instruments in the Pierrot inspired middle section and the pessimistic, melancholic mood that also inhabits the piece. The final bars with the sense of finality in the mournful cello finish were particularly powerful and were enhanced by the acoustic of the hall. A real sense of depth was achieved.

The Arensky trio which followed perfectly complemented the Debussy sonata. Arensky’s use of traditional Russian melodies in the Trio was to the fore in the performance and the beauty of the melodies, particularly in the elegia and in the finale, was perfectly suited to the acoustic.

The Smirnov Sonata (1979) is in a continuous movement and lasts about twenty minutes. It has two substantial cadenzas for the violinist and there is a quote from the Liszt Faust Symphony woven into the work. The dominant influence however is J.S.Bach, described by Darragh Morgan as Smirnov’s favourite composer, and buried deep are the four musical letters of the composer’s name. The music had a strong emotional impact and again was ideally suited to Wilton's.

The performance of the Ravel Trio (1914) caught the sense of macabre edginess that existed in all the main European cities in that year of calamity and which particularly affected the Parisians. Again the sheer beauty of melody was captured by the players, in the later movements and the performance ended with a more emphatic liveliness than I have previously heard in the piece.

Overall the recital was perfectly judged and performed and was ideally attuned to this venue, a wonderfully atmospheric and romantic space. It was noticeable that a number of the younger couples in the audience became locked in (fairly) passionate embraces at the end of the first half of the programme and before the commencement of the second. Is this a new trend at concerts? Do such things happen at the Wigmore Hall? Or were the audience caught up by the magical atmosphere and the superb playing.

Mark Dennis


© Peter Grahame Woolf