A Night of Stars

Trio IsimsizAnd so it was, both inside and outside Milverton Church, to kick off the 2018/19 season of the Milverton Concert Society last Friday. ‘Trio Isimsiz’ is a Spanish/English/Bulgarian trio who all speak fluently the most international language there is – music. Three young students at the Guildhall School of Music formed the trio in 2009 and from the outset have won awards and made a name for themselves. Now all Fellows of Guildhall, their appearance at Milverton was one of the happy events made possible by the hardworking team at MCS, whose skill at providing concerts of the highest quality is undiminished.

A modestly-sized audience heard a varied programme, and in keeping with so many of the events held in Milverton, we were exposed to music which we would probably not normally encounter – more about this later.

The evening began with the second work in Beethoven’s Op. 70, the Trio in E Flat. The spare sounding opening on strings (Pablo Benedi, violin, Michael Petrov, ‘cello) led to a beautifully balanced ensemble sound when they were joined on the piano by Erdem Misirlioglu. The good-natured Allegro section produced a rich, well-blended sound which nevertheless allowed us to hear each line clearly and distinctly. Well balanced on the whole, there were a few times when I felt the piano was a little too reticent, but the trio soon had the measure of the church’s acoustic and things settled down. Beethoven crafted a lovely ‘cello line in this movement and Michael made the most of it with bold, confident playing. The second movement alternates a genial C Major tune with a more stormy one in C Minor – the playing was a delight throughout with wonderfully crisp ‘cello pizzicato, and the ending was explosive. A warm-hearted waltz tune is passed between piano and violin in the third movement with a secure ‘cello underpinning, and lovely double stopping by Pablo gave an impression of a fourth player.

The finale produced a forthright, stirring sound, with a terrific rapport between the three, and Beethoven’s quirky modulations of the main tune were handled beautifully.

Next was the ‘Fantasie Triptych’ by British violinist and composer Natalie Klouda. Composed in 2014 the work was inspired by the relationships, correspondence, personalities and styles of the celebrated triumvirate of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Named ‘Explorations’ (Clara), ‘Reflections’ (Brahms) and ‘Vexations’ (Robert) the work is in three movements.
The opening bars of ‘Explorations’ required the ‘cellist to reach inside the piano and perform plucked glissandi over the opening piano chords, producing a cembalom-like effect. Indeed the piece had a folkish sound, the tonality wandering, wistful and reflective in tone. There were indeed explorations of timbre and sonic effects, using pizzicato, bowed notes, glissandi and spooky high harmonics, quite unsettling at times, but also with impassioned outbursts.

The “Brahms” movement opened with a soulful ‘cello soon joined by the violin, with a gypsy-music tonality about it. No surprise there, when one considers how fond Brahms was of that musical idiom. The movement then shifted into a series of fleeting motifs, again making use of high violin harmonics. The ‘Reflections’ were suggestive of regrets, nostalgia and contemplation of the past.

The final movement was turbulent, angular, spiky music – vexatious indeed, and it was very easy to relate the sound we heard to what we know of the anguish of Robert Schumann’s mental decline in his later years. Technically this is fearsome music, rhythmically terrifying but played with colossal virtuosity. Michael’s stunning pizzicato ‘cello passages were jaw-dropping and the vigorous and long-lasting applause for all three players was thoroughly deserved.

After a much-needed interval refreshment (I love the cheesy breadsticks to go with the wine) we heard one of the staples of the Romantic chamber repertoire, the Op. 87 C Major Trio of Brahms, first performed in 1882.

Obviously on familiar and much-loved ground, Trio Isimsiz launched into the opening Allegro with gorgeous, full-bodied ensemble sound. They made extensive and expressive use of rubato, very varied but perfectly controlled and disciplined. They made a big sound in the movement’s climaxes, and the conclusion was majestic. Brahms visits gypsy tonality again in the wistful A Minor tune of the second movement, before embarking on series of five variations. In the first of these, Erdem exploited the very rich piano part to the full, a full-blooded Brahms sound – delightful. All of the variations were beautifully played but special mention must be made of the gorgeous maestoso fourth and the soulful, melancholic fifth.

The scherzo is a skittish, fast moving piece made of fleeting fragments expertly stitched together, in a Mendelssohn-like manner. The excellent rapport between the three players made it sound effortless, but I’m darned sure it wasn’t! The finale was played with obvious joy and enthusiasm, the insouciant start to the coda leading to a majestic, thrilling conclusion.
This was top-notch playing by three virtuoso performers who have the extra gift of being able to blend their first-class individual skills into a superb ensemble. As I went out of the church into the star-studded autumn sky, I was once again grateful to the Milverton Concert Society for providing such first rank entertainment.

Review by Harold W. Mead, 27/10/2018

The Happy Return

Martin James BartlettLast May I wrote a glowing review of the first concert in Milverton by pianist Martin James Bartlett, BBC Young Musician of 2014, and I commented on the maturity of his playing for such a still young musician. Later in 2017 he took part in the prestigious Van Cliburn piano competition in the US, and it was with great pleasure that we all looked forward to a return visit, which has just taken place. The variety of his programme was striking, and it indicates that his career should avoid the type-casting which affects so many players. How often do we hear of so-and-so being ‘a Chopin player par excellence’ or a ‘great Beethovenian’? While there is no shame in being credited as being a great interpreter of a particular genre, Martin is already demonstrating that he is a well –rounded artiste to whose hands the full gamut of the piano repertoire can be safely entrusted.

Scarlatti worked in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when the piano was still developing and the harpsichord was still widely played and composed for. To play his works on a modern concert grand piano with its massive colour palette and resonance is a skill which not all pianists have in full measure. Horowitz did, and so does Martin. He played three of Scarlatti’s sonatas, the first being the familiar E Major work of 1754. I was immediately struck by his crystal-clear articulation, and his very restrained use of the pedal, which kept the sound beautifully transparent. Harpsichords and early pianos had a limited dynamic range and Martin similarly was very subtle in his variations of dynamic which were just right. Far from restricting the interest, he made the three works sound varied and rewarding to listen to.

A jump to Schumann plunges us into the romantic era, and the ‘Kinderszenen’ (Scenes from Childhood) Op. 15 has the added provenance of being written when the composer was in the deep throes of love for Clara Wieck who later became his wife. These are all small, compact works, not terrifyingly difficult technically, but calling for an interpreter who can bring out the subtle depths and nuances contained within them. This Martin did – in his opening remarks he said that the pieces reflected an adult view backwards to childhood, and that they were not in any way ‘childish’ music. His playing of these 13 miniatures was a revelation. This is a familiar set of pieces, yet he brought them alive, fresh and new, even the sometimes hackneyed ‘Träumerei’ and made of them a coherent whole. The moods ranged from frolicsome , through reflective and turbulent and the last of the thirteen seemed to be more a look forward to old age and decline – he played this so beautifully that it seemed to offer resolution and solace rather than fear or resentment.

After the interval we jumped again to the late 19th and early 20th centuries where Romanticism reached its peak before leading into more aggressive and astringent regions. Rachmaninov’s Op. 32 Preludes are complex, technically advanced and look pretty terrifying on the printed page. Martin’s playing in the B Minor (No. 10) was impassioned, and yet for all the power he brought to it, the whole thing was under perfect control. I really enjoyed his limpid playing of the melody over stunningly accurate left hand arpeggios in the G Major (No. 5).

He then played No. 12 in G Sharp Minor – this is a key which gives a stark, bleak quality to the sound, and this particular piece is stuffed with Rachmaninov’s characteristic melancholy to boot. I’m making it sound like ‘music to hang yourself by’ but in fact Martin’s playing softened the harshness and the Russianness came through beautifully.

Martin then repeated an item he played in his first visit to Milverton, the Liszt ‘Sonetto del Petrarca’ 104, a very familiar Liszt piece. He was totally immersed in the music and again his perfect pedalling allowed us to hear the full colour range of the instrument without any loss of clarity even in the most dense musical texture.

The concert ended with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 4 in F Sharp Major. The first movement sounds like a love-child of Wagner and Liszt, and the second is decidedly ‘bluesy’ with jazz-derived chords and rhythms. Martin stormed through with great aplomb and really cut loose in the finale. This movement is jubilant in character, but it’s a sort of relentless joy! The cascades of repeated chords in complex rhythms would be a nightmare for any amateur pianist but Martin was obviously relishing every moment and romped to a stunning conclusion.

He was obviously not going to get away without playing an encore! We were treated to a wonderful fusion of two of the evening’s composers – the magnificent transcription by Liszt of Schumann’s evergreen lied ‘Widmung’. Liszt’s transcriptions of other composers’ works can sometimes be emptily showy, but not this one. It’s beautifully written and Martin played it to perfection.

What a glorious night. The icing on the cake was that Martin has agreed to become the Youth Patron of the Milverton Concert Society, and we look forward to a Young Persons’ Concert later in the year.

Review by Harold W. Mead

Memorable Music-Making

Doric String QuartetDelicacy, precision, and raw energy – all these qualities, and more, were on display in a remarkable concert by the Doric String Quartet in Milverton Church on 23 March.

In an unusual piece of programming, Brahms Quartet Op 67 preceded Haydn’s Quartet Op 33 No.5: but as explained by cellist John Myerscough in an enlightening commentary, this highlighted Brahms’ debt to his Classical forebears. The Dorics’ lightness of touch, and a playing style that seemed influenced by historically informed performance practice, gave special poise to this sunny and good-humoured work. The rhythmic intricacy of the first movement, and the use of muted violin and cello in the third movement in order to highlight the sweet-toned viola of Helene Clement, were particularly well conveyed.

Constant variety in the balance and interplay of the four instruments is an intriguing and delightful feature of this ensemble: the violins of Alex Redington and Jonathan Stone, while always nimble, expressive and with perfect intonation, did not seek to dominate, but gave ample scope for the viola and cello to assert themselves. This was evident not least in the Haydn Quartet, where limpid harmonies and gentle melodies were startlingly interrupted by witty chromaticisms and passages of unexpected dramatic intensity.

Beethoven’s Quartet Op 130, with the ‘Grosse Fuge’ or Great Fugue as its sixth and last movement, is often described as the pinnacle of the quartet repertoire, and the Dorics delivered a performance which had not only the players, but also the audience, on the edge of their seats. The first five contrasted movements – in turn dramatic, humorous, playful and deeply poignant – are firmly rooted in the Classical harmonic and emotional tradition.
The Fugue is different, and unique: according to scholars, rhythmically unequalled since the 14th century, harmonically and structurally unequalled until the 20th century, and perhaps not even then. Yet the Dorics made sense of it, with constant eye-contact, meticulous shaping of phrases and sections, pregnant pauses. The controlled violence, rhythmic complexity, and passages of euphonic calm were shown to have an underlying and comprehensible structure. This was a world-class musical experience at which it was a privilege to be present, and Milverton Concert Society are to be thanked and congratulated for making it available in Somerset.

Review by Andrew Carter

What a Breeze!

EndymionAn odd title perhaps, but the Endymion Ensemble’s name for their concert in Milverton Church last Friday was ‘A Breeze Through France and Germany’ a perhaps not inappropriate title for a largely wind ensemble. It was pointed out by one of their members that Mozart was Austrian and that the Beethoven piece was written in Vienna, but no one was all that bothered by geographical pedantry – the music was what mattered! And brilliant music it was.

To read the CV’s of the individual members was impressive enough – to have them playing for us as a group made sense of what is often a cliché, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. So it was last Friday.

The Endymion was founded in 2004 and although the members occasionally vary, all the players we heard have a long association with each other, something which showed significantly in their first class ensemble playing. That said, in the opening allegro of the Mozart Quintet K452, it took a little while for the balance to be established. At first I felt that Michael Dussek’s piano line was a little too reticent and then later he was occasionally just a little too prominent in places – these are ungenerous nitpicks; the overall blend and balance of the ensemble was generally of the highest quality. One must also remember that since Mozart’s time, the power and timbre of every instrument we heard has been subject to development and change and that the overall sound we heard may have been very different from what was produced in 1784!

The rapport between the players was absolute and in the first movement I was particularly struck by the fine piano articulation and the gorgeous phrasing of the oboe passages by Melinda Maxwell. Can one have a big intimate sound? In the second movement they managed just that, producing great sonority, but it was a sound in which every line came through with great clarity. The final movement, based on an unsophisticated melody, was beautifully developed and embellished by different combinations of instruments and romped to a joyous conclusion.

The piano was replaced by the flute of Helen Keen in the next item, a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s ‘Pulcinella’ suite of 1922. Loosely based on the music of Palestrina, the ballet ‘Pulcinella’ was a huge success for the composer and even this reduced suite shows why.

The familiar Overture was played with great decisiveness and I loved Mark van der Wiel’s lovely clarinet flutters in the Serenade, a movement with very Stravinskian note clusters and odd harmonies. The complex rhythms and interplay of lines in the Tarantella were impressively handled by all players. The melancholy tune and timbre of the Andantino led into some wonderfully sprightly and skittish oboe and flute playing over a rustic accompaniment from Meyrick Alexander on bassoon and Stephen Stirling on French horn. A lovely Gavotte and two variations led into a very stately, even ponderous, Minuet but the cheeky interjections kept it from becoming too serious. The final Allegro, crawling with rhythmic pitfalls was a tour de force, beautifully executed.

After the interval we heard Beethoven’s Opus 16 Quintet, said to have been inspired by the Mozart. The Grave opening was sublime – lovely ensemble but crystal clear lines. The piano part in the first Allegro is very prominent, but the other instruments are not relegated to an accompanying role – they all have some quite declamatory moments. The second movement resembles a Beethoven piano sonata movement with instrumental interludes and each of the players had their chance to sing. The finale starts with a perky tune on the piano embellished by the other instruments as the movement proceeds. Beethoven’s pre-eminence as a pianist really shows in the very demanding piano part in this movement – echoes of the concertos were evident. The whole group gave us a rousing finish.

Finally, Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds gave everyone a chance to let their hair down and we were not disappointed. The gloriously jazzy and abandoned start managed to be raunchy and elegant at the same time, before the bassoon ushered in a more dreamy middle section. Here Helen’s beautifully French-sounding flute meshed perfectly with the wistful oboe and horn phrases. The second movement featured a languorous clarinet followed by a jaunty horn tune which led to a series of perky phrases tossed around from player to player. The lush, exciting almost manic finale was a brilliant end to a musical masterpiece, played to perfection by an ensemble of the highest quality.
Thanks, Milverton Concert Society – you’ve done it again.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 27/11/17

You Heard Them Here First!

Duo BirringerWe are used to the Milverton Concert Society consistently coming up with world-class performers at their Friday concerts, but the first concert of the 2017/2018 season had the added bonus of being the English debut of the Duo Birringer from Germany. Esther (piano) and younger sister Lea (violin) both started playing at age three – Lea went on to study in Salzburg, Esther in Hannover, but although they have separate careers, their close rapport when playing together was magnificently evident in their Milverton programme.

They started with Grieg’s 1865 Sonata in F, and after the two sombre opening piano chords the first movement was launched with great élan by Lea. Her phrasing was exquisite and she had wonderful control of rubato and dynamics. This was fiery and impassioned playing from both but beautifully controlled and articulated. The wistful opening bars of the second movement moved seamlessly into the more declamatory sections and the folk trio passage in the middle was full of brilliance. The balance between the two instruments was exemplary and the final pages of this movement were performed with great panache.

In the finale, the very short fugal passage led into the brilliantly written conclusion – the music sounded abandoned and wild, but these two had everything firmly under control. Overall this is a rather episodic work, with many variations of mood, but Lea and Esther bridged all of the changes with great aplomb and this was wonderful music making.

In Liszt’s two Elégies, transcribed from piano solos, both players excelled. The first, with its wistful semitone phrases gave Lea the chance to show her impeccable double-stopping – the ascending trills at the end were also lovely. The second Elégie has the more unusual harmonies and tonality, and significantly explores the lower register of the violin – here there was just an occasional hint of roughness in Lea’s playing, but in fact this was not out of character with the music and did not detract from my enjoyment. Again, the final trills were superb.

After the interval they played the three Op. 22 Romances by Clara Schumann. The partnership between the two players was exquisite, nowhere better shown than in the third piece. Here, Esther was magnificent, the piano writing is relentless and technically very demanding. While she was showing her mastery of the piano part, Lea was floating effortlessly on top with wonderful variations on a simple melody. This was a brilliant showcase for a very under-rated composer.

To end the evening we heard one of the masterpieces of the violin sonata repertoire, the 1886 work by César Franck. In the first movement, there is actually very little writing for the two instruments together – each is given their own space and both Lea and Esther excelled.

The second movement is turbulent and contains some ferocious writing for both instruments, but honours go to Esther – she played the demanding piano part with sheer bravura, and deserved the respite of the more reflective mood of her role in the third movement. In this movement the violin part becomes more and more impassioned and Lea showed never a sign of strain, her technical assurance allowing her to become truly emotionally involved in the music.

The finale contains the best-known melody from this work, played in canon and swapping between the two instruments as it progresses. The central passage reminded us of the exciting second movement and then the opening theme returned in various tonal and rhythmic guises to take us into the joyful final pages.

The applause was long and thunderous – there was no way we were going to let them go without an encore. This came in the form of the first of Shostakovich’s four Op. 34 Preludes, a spiky, insouciant piece with an amazing couple of bars of double-stopping where it seemed that two tunes were going on at the same time!

A wonderful English debut by two very talented musicians has once more got the Milverton concert series off to a flying start. I eagerly look forward to the rest.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 21/10/17

Stunning Maturity

Martin James BartlettIf policemen seem to be getting younger, so do world-class concert pianists. Word had obviously got around, and Milverton Parish Church was packed for last Friday’s concert presented by the Milverton Concert Society. Three years ago at the age of 17, Martin James Bartlett stunned the audience and viewers when he won the BBC Young Musician competition in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. He has gone from strength to strength since then, and his appearance in Milverton is shortly before he goes to the United States to take part in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Texas. Based on what we heard last Friday, he has a darned good chance of winning!

His programme was very varied, covering a huge timespan and widely differing styles of music. He opened with the famous Partita No. 2 in C Minor by Bach and he had the audience gripped from start to finish. Originally for harpsichord of course, this piece translates well to the piano, especially at the hands of someone so totally inside the music as Martin was. The opening was sonorous, his articulation was crystal clear, nowhere more so than in the two-part fugue which concludes the first movement. In the Sarabande his playing was calm and controlled, yet it flowed freely and the melodic lines were beautifully crafted. Time and time again I was struck by the clarity of line, precision coupled with bravura in the final movement and the way in which he demonstrated the humour in the writing with real vigour. If he had played nothing else that night, this performance marked him out as a superbly mature artist with a huge talent.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 18 Op. 31 deserves to be more popular than it is, especially if it is played as well as it was last Friday. The first movement was joyous, and Martin’s very restrained use of the pedal continued the clarity and precision of sound which had characterised the Bach. In the second movement the gruff, bumbling figures in the bass line were beautifully played and he made the most of the joyful outbursts and leaps which this movement contains. The Menuetto was gentle and heartfelt – he was absolutely at one with the composer, his soul was obviously in the music. The joyful and prancing finale, with its moments of drama, was played in great style and this was again a stunning performance.

The first half ended with a very different musical genre, the lush and grandiose music of Granados, when Martin played the ‘Love and Death’ movement from that composer’s 1911 ‘Goyescas’ Suite. This is rather an episodic piece, but Martin managed to give it a coherence which lesser players might not have managed. The texture of this music is very rich and thick, but even in the loudest and most declamatory passages the sound was never muddy or congested. Martin’s articulation was wondrous, and the emotional middle section with its mixture of passion and bleakness was superbly played. Phew! We needed that interval.

After a glass of red, I was ready to face Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca Op. 104, a very familiar piece but which was made to sound new and exciting again. Martin once more showed his astonishing ability to span genres. This was Liszt in the grand romantic manner. The playing had all of the flamboyance one would expect but with a steely control and firm grip on the tempi and dynamics. The unexpectedly tranquil ending of the piece was played exquisitely.

Tranquillity fled the building with the harsh, sardonic and angular opening of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7, sometimes called the ‘Stalingrad sonata’. This is dissonant, disturbing music and even if the second subject was in a more reflective style, it still contained a feeling of unease and desolation, perfectly realised in Martin’s playing. The second movement is very emotional, also uneasy in places, but also very passionate, almost frenetic in the later passages. Its slow theme is loosely based on a song by Schumann and that tune recurs at the end, bringing the movement to a resigned conclusion.

In the finale Prokofiev unleashes an insistent, menacing theme at the start. In character I was reminded of Bernstein’s music for the ‘rumble’ (gang fight) in ‘West Side Story’ but the whole thing was very Russian. Martin played it with fingers of steel, and the colossal climax of fortissimo octaves brought the house down. The applause was thunderous and long – there was no way that he was going to get away without playing an encore.

This he did – after the raw power of the Prokofiev we were treated to an exquisite performance of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 Number 3 – a wonderful antidote to the previous starkness. If any proof were needed, this showed once again what a fully-rounded musician Martin Bartlett is. He has a long and wonderful career ahead of him, and to hear him play was a real privilege.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 07/05/2017

Triple Pleasure At Milverton

Vienna Piano TrioThe first concert of 2017 presented by Milverton Concert Society was a winner from start to finish. We heard the renowned Vienna Piano Trio – Austrian born Stefan Mendl on piano, American David McCarroll on violin, and Munich born Matthias Gredler on ‘cello. Stefan was a founder member of the trio (in 1988) and they have a formidable reputation in the chamber music field.

Their first item was the 1786 Trio in G major by Mozart. From the lovely, fluent piano opening onwards it was obvious that the three players were really enjoying the music, and their intimate rapport showed very clearly. They produced a rich sound and their clarity of line was exemplary. This first movement has some unexpected tonal progressions (Mozart experimenting!) and the trio’s perfect ensemble allowed us to savour these. The second movement consists more of musical fragments being tossed around the instruments rather than long flowing lines, again with some unusual key shifts and harmonic resolutions. This was played with great precision, but it did not in any way seem regimented or constrained.

The finale is a ‘theme and variations’ movement, and the performance was joyful throughout. The movement is not melodically complex, but rhythmically demanding – I was particularly struck by Stefan’s virtuoso playing of the piano part; here is the Mozart of the late piano concertos. For all the tonal quirkiness of this piece it sounded perfectly natural and the ensemble sound was gorgeous throughout.

The next item on the programme could not have been more different. Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte Nacht’ (‘Transfigured Night’) written in 1899 was originally for string sextet and then for full string orchestra, but Eduard Steuermann’s transcription for piano trio is now well known and a very worthy addition to the repertoire. It is ‘programme music’ and was inspired by a poem of Richard Dehmel, a work regarded as sexually scandalous at the time of writing. The Lisztian piano opening, then joined by spare, eerie string phrases soon blossoms into impassioned melody and the Vienna Trio gave it their all. Special mention must be made of Matthias’s stunning ‘cello contribution throughout (I felt for him in the Mozart – his role was very constrained there). He produced sounds of true nobility in the passages depicting the loving and forgiving utterances of the man in the poem towards the despairing female character. On the other hand, the impassioned outbursts of despair from the ‘ruined woman’ were equally well presented even in the most fiendishly difficult pages – the trio’s rapport with the music and each other was consummate.

After the interval we moved into the sunny uplands of one of the greatest composers of chamber music, Schubert. His B Flat Trio, Op. 99 was written just before he died and is of large scale, taking almost 40 minutes to perform. This is gracious, smiling music and it was hard to believe that we were hearing only three instruments. This was a big, gorgeous sound, but in no way overblown – perfectly suited to the music and the venue. The violin/’cello octave passages in the first movement were perfect – it sounded like a single two-voiced instrument. Throughout the second movement the balance between the three instruments was masterly, although again we gasped at Matthias’s virtuosity in the sections where the ‘cello was written to be the star.

The eminently danceable tunes of the third movement were given an air of insouciance by all three players and the waltz-rhythm second subject was very graceful and lilting. Simple melodies, but anything but simple to make them sound so easy on the ear.

Throughout the finale, there was again that sense of complete cohesion whether playing delicate phrases or powerful ensemble pages. The players were totally immersed in the music and so were we. The applause was long and loud and deservedly so. The encore of the slow movement of Brahms’s second Trio was a very different musical genre, but this only served to reinforce the versatility of the Vienna Piano.

A wonderful night – thank you, Milverton Concert Society.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 26/11/2016

Birthday Brilliance

picks1398e_2xLast Friday’s ‘President’s Concert’ presented by the Milverton Concert Society celebrated two birthdays – the 30th year of the Society’s music making in Milverton and the 60th birthday of their energetic and charismatic President, pianist Melvyn Tan. There was even a cake with candles at the end, which also tied in nicely with one of the items he played during the evening. This unassuming and friendly man wowed the near capacity audience with a dazzling display of sheer technical skill and artistic sensitivity in a programme which included one of the towering peaks of the solo piano repertoire, Liszt’s fearsomely challenging Sonata in B Minor.

Melvyn got the first laugh of the evening, when he found he had to lift his own piano lid! The concert opened with a performance of Beethoven’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 126. We are so used to linking the words ‘bagatelle’ and ‘mere’ that it would be easy to assume that these pieces are slight and trivial offerings – they are not. Late Beethoven is challenging for player and listener alike – the by now profoundly deaf composer was writing pieces which defied the musical conventions of the time and were boldly experimental in structure and tonality, looking forward to Liszt and other innovative composers for the instrument. The first, an Andante in G Major, was played with elegance and the second, with its quirky key and rhythm changes was played with amazing precision and clarity.

I thought that no. 3 started a little stolidly, but soon we heard playing of fluid grace which perfectly realised the composer’s ‘grazioso’ marking. The intensity of the outer sections of the fourth bagatelle was beautifully balanced by the tranquillity of the middle bars and the lilting playing in no. 5 was truly lovely. The Chopin-like configurations of the themes in the final piece were perfectly rendered.

The same composer’s Sonata no. 30 Op. 109 followed and we were treated to steely-fingered brilliance in the opening vivace bars. It’s easy to see why Liszt was such an enthusiastic admirer of these late Beethoven works – as Melvyn navigated flawlessly through the stormy second movement, the fantasia quality of the music, so typical in the later ‘tone poems’ of Liszt came through clearly.
The elegiac melody of the final movement was stated sonorously, and the subsequent variations allowed Melvyn to relish the whole gamut of pianistic styles, and he was totally convincing in all modes. After unleashing a coda of great power he brought the work to a tranquil close with an equally beautiful re-statement of the chorale-like theme which began the movement.

For his 60th birthday, Melvyn commissioned a piece from Jonathan Dove, and in his own words, asked the composer for a ‘good work out’. He got it – the piece ‘Catching Fire’ could easily have been the fate of the piano, so vigorously did Melvyn have to work. Even the page-turner had problems with a recalcitrant copy which would not lie down on the stand, and it’s the first time I have ever seen a world-ranking concert pianist visibly counting beats and bars as he played! The piece suggests flames – sometimes the small flame of a candle, at others a growing blaze of fire almost getting out of control. From bars of tranquillity the music would erupt like bursts of flame and sparks; there were pages of joyful, dance-like figures where the fire was well-behaved. Other sections reminded me of the savage outbursts in Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ where the fires obviously were on the rampage.

This was playing of outstanding virtuosity and the applause was thunderous and well-deserved. I never thought I’d catch myself thinking “Oh well the Liszt will be easier”.

It’s not of course – he just made it sound that way. I didn’t write down one single word during the performance, it wasn’t necessary. My favourite recording until now has been Krystian Zimerman’s from 1995 and although Melvyn’s interpretation may not quite have had all of the bravura and ferocity of that version, it was certainly a totally convincing presentation of the composer’s brilliant invention. I was utterly enthralled and went out the day after to buy the CD (Onyx Records No. 4156) – this was a performance to treasure.

Naturally we would not let Melvyn go without an encore and we were treated to a masterful rendition of Chopin’s well-loved Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66. Then came the bouquets, the champagne and the birthday cake with candles – a very jolly end to an anniversary evening which the Milverton Concert Society deserved without reservation.

Review by Harold W. Mead – 26/11/2016

A Cracking Start!

Scott BrothersThat’s my assessment of the first concert in the 2016/17 season of events being presented by the Milverton Concert Society. The organisers themselves were a little anxious about this opening concert – two young brothers from Manchester playing piano and organ duets is a slightly unusual offering, but the Scott Brothers Duo blew us away with an evening of sheer musical virtuosity and it was great fun to boot. Tom (piano) and Jonathan (organ) both studied at Chetham’s School of Music and later at the Royal Northern College.

As soon as the organ blasted in after the quiet opening bars of Rossini’s ‘Italian Girl in Algiers’ overture (reminiscent of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ symphony) I knew that this was a unique experience in the making! Rossini’s overture is relentless and full of rhythmic traps – I was amazed at how the two widely separated players kept in sync – stunning. I did observe Tom occasionally making micro adjustments in tempo but these were so smoothly and adeptly done that the music didn’t falter in any way.

And so it continued throughout the evening. We heard an astonishing miscellany of pieces in varied music styles, some written specifically for this instrumental combination, others arranged by the brothers Scott. Some of the pieces were totally new to me, and they received powerful advocacy from these two fine musicians. Benjamin Burrows’ “Variations on an Original Theme” was a case in point. After its Bach choral-like statement of the theme, we went through a fascinating succession of ‘spot the style’ variations – Elgar here, Schumann there, a pastorale, a glorious maestoso, a touch of Rachmaninov and a fabulous fugue worthy of Reger at his best. This is a piece which deserves greater popularity.

Pietro Yon is not a name I knew, and despite his beginnings as a Vatican organist, his ‘Concerto Gregoriano’ is the least churchy music imaginable! With echoes of Widor, Saint Saens and Reger, this piece is a glorious romp, not least for its stunning pedals-only cadenza – Jonathan gave us amazing pedal glissandi and only Fred Astaire could have matched what his feet were doing (quite invisibly to us!).

The famous Bach/Gounod ‘Ave Maria’ was a welcome period of tranquillity, and when they played a repeat with more of Gounod’s melody given to the piano part, Tom’s contribution was one of great beauty.

The first half ended with Addinsell’s so-called ‘Warsaw Concerto, with the organ taking the orchestral role. Despite a breathtaking display of pianistic virtuosity by Tom (it might be film music, but you need a top-rank concert pianist to play it) I felt this was the least successful item of the evening. Addinsell’s original orchestral scoring matches the lushness of the Rachmaninov style it was designed to emulate, and I felt that the organ couldn’t quite cope with the demands.

On the other hand, their transcription of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ overture was a triumph from start to finish, as was the gentle rocking ‘Pastorale’ of Guilmant. In this latter piece the theme continually swapped between piano and organ as it became more complex rhythmically and chromatically and the richly sonorous climax led us into a tranquil conclusion – lovely.

Tom Scott’s own composition ‘Timepiece’ inspired by pendulum clocks and their ability to synchronise out of asynchronicity was fascinating and I particularly enjoyed the way, as the themes combined into a thicker texture, the insistent, driving piano rhythms almost forced the music into synchronisation – an ingenious composition.

Mascagni’s famous ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ Intermezzo was beautifully done and the barnstormingly spectacular and virtuosic 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody of Liszt was given the full works to end the evening. Tom’s pyrotechnical piano playing was utterly stunning and the applause was long and rapturous. The encore of a piano duet version of Strauss’s ‘Tritsch Tratsch’ polka was glorious and showed that Jonathan’s piano playing was also of the highest order.

These two unassuming young men gave us an evening of wonderful music played with the highest skill and virtuosity. As I said at the beginning, what a start to the new season – the ‘Milverton Fridays’ just get better and better.

Review by Harold W. Mead, 22/10/2016

And There Were Lights

bushel LightsWe have become accustomed to a certain kind of concert at the events staged by the Milverton Concert Society. What kind? Consummately professional ones, with CD-perfect playing, ‘Wigmore Hall ready’ performances. Did we get one of those last Friday? No. Did it matter? ABSOLUTELY NOT! What we did get were four accomplished and enthusiastic local musicians putting their all into entertaining us, and making a very fine job of it.

‘The Bushel Lights’ is an inspired name for the quartet of Lisa Tustian, Alison Pink, Gareth Dayus-Jones and Christian Hopwood – in the event, the audience was delighted that the four refused to be hidden. They displayed an impressive range of talents, both vocal and instrumental, although sometimes out of their comfort zones!

The programme was a wonderful mixture too – madrigals, solos, and instrumental arrangements covering a huge time span and a wide range of musical genres. Not everything went perfectly; I have to admit that I have heard significantly better string quartets. However the rather unconventional grouping of two violins and two ‘cellos did add a certain something to the Bourée No. 7 from Handel’s Water Music as it did to the ‘Fawlty Towers’ theme. Full marks for sheer brass neck.

Elsewhere in the programme there were some stunningly good performances. Lisa and Gareth were terrific in two vocal duets by Mendelssohn, their fine blend, thoughtful phrasing and beautifully controlled dynamics showing us just what a good composer for the voice he was. Gareth also gave us some lovely Finzi settings of Shakespeare – I loved his rich tone in the forte passages and his phrasing was excellent throughout. He could have been a bit more legato in ‘Who Is Sylvia’ but otherwise this was a fine performance.

There were some idiosyncratic instrumental performances! Alison’s arrangement of Schubert’s ‘Marche Militaire’ for trombone and horn produced a rustic sound and Christian’s trombonic agility was well displayed. The much-maligned recorder was also given a prominent outing when every variety of that instrument from tiny sopranino to full-toned bass was featured in items by Rosseter and Morley. The latter’s ‘Now is the Month of Maying’ also formed the basis for the audience participation, expertly administered by Lisa.

All four of these musicians contributed superbly to the evening, but special mention must be made of Gareth’s superb piano playing in four items by Frank Bridge. Gareth rightly said in his introduction that Bridge is an under-rated composer, and he could not have had a better advocate that night. The playing was agile, sonorous and flamboyant by turns and swaggered to a brilliant finish.

The applause given for this very mixed evening was long and well-deserved. The resulting encore was quite the noisiest and wackiest arrangement of Johann Strauss the Elder’s ‘Radetsky March’ I have ever heard, for eight hands on one piano. It typified the evening – music is both a serious endeavour and entertainment. The Bushel Lights made a fine job of reminding us of that.

Review by Harold Mead