Appearances can be deceptive

Momen-WatermanWhen David Waterman and Mishka Rushdie Momen walked on for Milverton Concert Society’s latest concert on 12th March, the notion of teacher-pupil was irresistible.

But from the first delicate notes from diminutive Momen on the piano, the relationship was clearly much more balanced, with the professorial Waterman at times working hard on the ‘cello to match the much younger pianist in short pieces from Beethoven and Schumann.

Momen’s moment came in her sublime solo performance of Schubert’s intense Fantasie in C Major, her left hand providing a steadying influence on the impatient right to emerge dominant by the end.

It was only after the interval that Waterman revealed to the Milverton church audience that when he was 24 like Momen, he was just starting out on a teaching and performing career which culminated in his 38 years with the Endellion Quartet.

Brahms ‘Cello Sonata no.1 in E Minor is perhaps too familiar from the world’s greatest cellists, but in this case, the piano may have been too forceful, with less rapport between the two performers than might have been expected.

The balance was restored in the final piece, with Waterman’s light and lyrical touch on Dvorak’s Waldesruhe, the piano softer in support.

Review by Jeremy Toye

The Sitkovetsky Piano Trio

SitkovetskyOn Friday last, at St Michael’s Church, the Milverton Concert Society’s audience was treated to a stunning evening of music performed by the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio. The Trio, founded in 2007, has since won international acclaim, and become a group of the first rank, performing at venues in all parts of the globe. Their leader and founder, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, announced before the programme began that he and pianist Wu Qian were joined for the occasion by guest cellist Sébastien Van Kuijk, though their subsequent performance gave no indication that they were not unused to playing together. On the contrary, the ensemble was perfect, each player appearing to show great familiarity with each other’s playing.

They began this Milverton concert with the best known of Josef Haydn’s 45 piano trios, No. 39 in G major, the only one to have acquired a nickname “Gypsy Rondo”, owing to Haydn’s use of gypsy themes in the final movement. This is a delightful and deservedly popular work, which the Sitkovetskys played with much affection. It became apparent in the opening two movements, Andante and Poco adagio, cantabile, that we were in the presence of some very talented and sensitive performers, delicately sharing between them Haydn’s gently alternating themes. It was in the final movement that they showed their great skill in working together, showing their virtuosic skills, rushing to the work’s final coda.

Ravel composed his Piano Trio in A minor between April and August 1914, at St Jean de Luz, in the French Basque country of his birth, though it had been much longer in its planning. The work is fairly traditional in its four movement structure, but Ravel creates a sound world which makes his trio so different than any that had gone before it. The textures are full and rich, using effects such as tremolos, glissandos, and harmonics, which make huge technical demands on all the players, as do the constantly changing and irregular 5/4 and 7/4 rhythms. The Sitkovetskys proved themselves more than able to cope with the challenges of this music, Wu Qian in particular showing dazzling skills at the piano, and such delicacy when at times playing between the two string players who were an octave apart. The sound the Trio produced was sometimes almost orchestral due to the close structures of the composition, and the way that Ravel uses the extreme ranges of each instrument. I don’t think I have ever heard such richness of sound from so small a group in this setting. The 2nd movement, “Pantoum”, was particularly exciting, as was the “Final” ending with a brilliant coda.

The Sitkovetsky Trio’s final offering was Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor. As with Ravel, this was Tchaikovsky’s only composition in this genre, and his only chamber work to include the piano. He had shown great reluctance to write such a work, but the result is one of his finest and most popular works, and the most difficult work for the piano in his entire output. Dedicated to the memory of his friend and mentor Nikolai Rubenstein, who died in 1881, this trio was written in Rome the following year .

The trio has only two movements, the second being an extended set of variations. The opening movement, “elegiac piece”, opens with a solo for the cello, beautifully executed by Sébastien Van Kuijk. This is the main theme, which returns at the very end of the work. It is a dark and brooding melody which the trio developed with great passion and intensity. It is in the following movement, a theme with eleven variations and a finale and coda, where each of the Sitkovetsky’s members were able to show to the full their individual skills. The piano opens with the rather majestic theme, soon to be joined by the violin and cello. The work then progresses though a series of variations in which the players seem to take it in turns to play the dominant role. We get further and further away from the lugubrious tone set by the beginning of the work, until in Variation VI, Tempo di Valse, the mood is positively joyous and the players really began to enjoy themselves, Wu Qian particularly powerful on the piano. The fugue, two variations later, is a remarkable and thrilling construction which they appeared to relish. Wu Qian again shone in the “mazurk a” variation, as did Alexander Sitkovetsky himself in the moderato section which followed. In the final section the mood is ecstatic and there was some beautiful and breathtaking playing from these three young artists creating a clamorous sound, but which was never but never lacking in clarity, in which Tchaikovsky the symphonist came through strongly, until finally, with a sudden return to the original minor key, the work ends with the funereal theme, again announced by the cello.

This was an extraordinarily entertaining evening of music, given by three young people who are most gifted exponents of their art. One can only thank Milverton Concert Society once again for providing us with the opportunity to hear performances by musicians of such a high standard as this.

Review by Chris Markwick


Blossom StreetCandles, tree lights, mulled wine, mince pies and carols – could Christmas be in the offing perchance? Milverton Concert Society once more presented an evening of fine music to banish the “Bah humbugs!” when ten singers from the highly successful a cappella group ‘Blossom Street’ entertained us last Friday. Led by their founder Hilary Campbell, they performed a lovely programme under the title ‘A Short While for Dreaming’ which heavily featured the music of Peter Warlock. The other composers presented also fitted in very well with what was a well-chosen list of items, and the whole evening was a delight.

The sound they produced was characterised by clarity of the individual lines but with a solid and well-balanced ensemble sound. Only occasionally did the tenor line sound a little too prominent, but since it was being so beautifully sung, this was not a major fault! Another feature was the scrupulous attention paid to dynamics, Hilary communicating very clearly what she wanted, and getting it every time.

An item-by-item analysis would be boring, but there were several outstanding numbers which I must mention. The popular ‘Carol of the Bells’ was articulated to perfection and it came up sounding fresh and new, no mean feat for such a frequently performed piece. The sound blend in ‘Jesus Christ the Apple Tree’ was sonorous and rich both in harmony and (more difficult) when they were singing in unison. Herbert Howells’s ‘Here is the Little Door’ was truly gorgeous, with the long legato phrases done to perfection. Harmonically this is a killer, and I thought I detected a little uncertainty in the bass pitching at the end.

Warlock’s choral music is not sung as often as it deserves and Hilary’s advocacy was very welcome. The disciplined energy the choir brought to ‘Benedicamus Domine’ was of the finest, and the harmonically fiendish ‘The Spring of the Year’ was coped with very well. The first half ended with the choir distributing themselves about the church for an in-the-round performance of the famous Rachmaninov setting of the Ave Maria ‘Bogoroditse Devo’. The surround sound was stunning, and all of the dynamics from the quietest pianissimo to the massive outburst at ‘Yáko Spása, rodilá’ were spot on.

After the interval, the delights kept coming – the well-known ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’ was perfect, the lovely underpinning sound from the men contrasting with the soaring arcs of sound from the ladies. Rutter’s ‘Quem Pastores’ was a lovely mixture of tightly controlled sound but rhythmic freedom, and the joyful performance of Warlock’s ‘Yarmouth Fair’ was an object lesson in perfect ensemble and diction.

The concert ended with Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’. The story of how this came to be written is now legend – in 1927 the almost broke Warlock and poet Bruce Blunt wrote this as an entry to a carol competition in the Daily Telegraph, and won. The prize money provided them with ‘an immortal carouse’ for Christmas Eve. Hilary took this at a risky very slow tempo, but it paid off. The choir maintained a lovely depth of sound even in the quietest moments (well done basses – you coped with a slight pitch drop!). This was a lovely finish.

Well, not quite – we did get a rollicking encore of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ to round off an evening of great delight.

Review by Harold W. Mead. 13/12/15

Oh No, Not Again!

Sacconi QuartetSpeaking as a reviewer, I’m beginning to get a little fed up with the Milverton Concert Society. They might at least give me a chance to carp a little – to allow me to have a dig at a mediocre performance or a less than top class artiste. (I’d love to be able to use W. S. Gilbert’s gloriously ambiguous greeting to an actor at the interval – “My dear fellow, good isn’t the word!”) But no, they keep on serving up the most amazing evenings, with performers of the highest calibre, and the most recent concert was no exception. The Sacconi Quartet, formed in 2001, presented a programme ranging across the years and different musical styles, to great effect.

There had been some difficulties before the concert, in that the violist Robin Ashwell had been very unwell – this curtailed their ability to rehearse and forced a programme change. In the event, the revised programme was still brilliant and most enjoyable. Starting with a rarity, in that it is by Puccini, a composer one would not normally associate with string quartets, the Sacconi played his short piece ‘I Crisantemi’ (The Chrysanthemums). This short one-movement work is very soulful, and immediately showed the Sacconi’s ability to produce a sonorous, well-blended sound, but one where each line was also crystal clear. A good start to the evening.

In place of the advertised piece by Graham Fitkin, we then heard the well-known Quartettsatz in C Minor by Schubert, a single movement which may have been intended for an entire quartet, but which stands very well on its own. It opens restlessly and stormily, and the Sacconi played it with ferocious intensity, but under total control. The more lyrical second subject was played very elegantly with radiance, and I was particularly impressed by ‘cellist Cara Berridge’s perfectly precise pizzicato (how alliterative!).

To take us up to the interval we then heard one of Haydn’s much loved Op. 76 quartets, No. 1 in G Major. This is elegant writing by the ‘father of the string quartet’ and the Sacconi’s playing was equally elegant and matched the music perfectly. Once more I was impressed by the transparency of the sound, great clarity but a well-blended ensemble. The second movement can invite wallowing in false ‘soulfulness’, but they managed to avoid this, partly by eschewing excessive vibrato – this gave the performance what we are nowadays told is a more authentic sound. The chorale-like beauty of the theme came across, and although the music is quite sparsely written in places there was a depth and nobility to the sound which was just right.

The third movement is a scherzo-like theme and variations – it is rhythmically frolicsome and invites lots of pulling about with the tempo. The Sacconi did this wonderfully, all watching Ben Hancox’s lead like hawks and their ensemble was once again faultless. The finale requires great virtuosity from all players in the fiendishly rapid writing – there is a wild wandering through various keys in the middle until a single tune emerges. Although a simple melody, this called for colossal dexterity from the first violin to cope with its embellishments and the whole work romped to a joyous finish.

When hearing Beethoven’s late works it’s a sobering and astonishing thought that he never heard a note of them except in his head – his deafness by then was total. The Op. 131 Quartet in C Sharp Minor (‘A stark and remote’ key as described by Ben in his opening remarks) is a tribute to his talent in those sad circumstances, but at times one can hear that the music has been affected by his situation. The opening slow fugue is indeed stark, sad and bleak yet hauntingly beautiful. The four voices overlapped, passed fragments back and forward, merged and then diverged again, all with great intensity – hairs on the back of the neck stuff.

Listening to the second movement I suddenly wondered if Elgar knew this piece well? I heard phrases and harmonies which seemed familiar from the ‘Introduction and Allegro for Strings’ (I’m probably way off the mark!). Again, short motifs handed back and forward, and the lower strings had an equally important part to play in the overall sound.

At this point Beethoven abandoned the conventional four-movement structure and wrote a series of hugely contrasting sets of variations, ending in a sublime adagio in 9/4 time. This is very difficult music to play and the Sacconi encompassed all its demands with great aplomb. The music is episodic and is in no way a flowing narrative. It’s as if the deaf composer was experimenting with new techniques of composition and playing – in places the music seems to be a series of fragments arbitrarily tacked together. Despite this, the players brought a sense of coherence in execution and made great sense of it – their technique was severely tested and I was stunned by their flawless execution of arpeggios across the ensemble, especially the pizzicato ones!

The finale is massive, stormy and forceful, leading to a magisterial coda and ending. The Sacconi thoroughly deserved the long and enthusiastic applause, and quite rightly resisted the calls of ‘Encore’ – anything else would have been superfluous (and an imposition after all that hard work!)

As I said at the beginning, another triumph for Milverton Concert Society, and another opportunity missed for me to say something critical. Oh well, maybe next time, although I doubt it.

Review by Harold W. Mead

A Start with a Flourish

BenyounesI always eagerly await the new season from Milverton Concert Society, and this year’s first concert proved to be a great start. Zara Benyounes leads the quartet bearing her name, and the four young ladies (although their publicity picture shows a man!) entertained us splendidly. The incisive opening and clarity of line in Haydn’s ‘Emperor’ Quartet was indicative of what was to come, an evening of lovely music, very well played. In the first movement their ensemble was very close-knit; they were all watching each other like hawks and it paid off. I particularly liked the rustic section with a lovely ‘drone bass’ from the ‘cello.

The second movement is the theme and variations on what we call ‘Austrian Tune’ in the church hymnary, and oddly enough I didn’t hear the tune very well in the opening statement. The first violin was a little too reticent and the other lines dominated. Again, in the first variation, where the tune is given to the second violin (Emily Holland), Zara’s decorative arpeggios were not always cleanly articulated. From then on however, the ensemble sound was much better – the ‘cello of Kim Vaughan was beautifully soulful in the 2nd variation, as was violist Sara Roberts’ contribution in the 3rd.

The third movement minuet doesn’t quite pass the “Are you the O’Reilly” test’ (there’s a Google project for you) but it was played with great elegance. I could visualise the bewigged gentlemen and ladies in their courtly dances. The stormy final movement got off to a forceful and exciting start, and the brilliantly accurate ensemble was maintained throughout even the most rapid and demanding passages – a tour de force.

Next the quartet was joined by pianist Jeremy Young, a man whose musical reputation is of the highest quality and deservedly so. Their first joint offering was Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 in A, which the composer himself published in the quintet arrangement we heard. The balance with the strings was absolutely spot-on throughout, thanks to Jeremy’s very intelligently limited use of the pedal, and not letting the modern Yamaha’s powerful bass output overpower the texture. The first movement cadenza was a virtuoso performance in itself – I asked him at the interval about the cadenzas, and they were all also by Mozart. In the minor key section of the lovely second movement (and its cadenza) there were some very adventurous modulations for a relatively early work, Mozart obviously trying out new effects.

I loved the final movement, with gorgeous lightly skipping piano playing. Where the strings were playing in unison they sounded like one instrument and the whole piece romped to a sprightly and exciting finish.

After the interval we were treated to one of the masterpieces of the piano quintet repertoire, the sumptuous Opus 81 of Dvorak. This work is absolutely chockfull of lovely tunes spilling over one another. From the rich ‘cello opening onwards we heard a solid, beautiful sound, full of dramatic urgency, the wonderful writing fully exploited and presented for our sheer enjoyment.

There are no inequalities in this work – Dvorak gives everyone a chance to shine and lead the ensemble. All five players were well up to the task and this opening movement produced wonderful contrasts between the dramatic and lush passages and the more tranquil sections, all beautifully balanced between the players.

The lower strings shone in the melancholy tune which opens the second movement. I loved the sheer elegance of the playing in the flowing second subject, and was particularly taken with the two-note arpeggios from the strings over Jeremy’s limpid piano sound. The livelier dance section was a joy, the precision of the ensemble even in the fiercest accelerando bars a revelation.

I gave up taking notes for the jolly, dancing scherzo and the exuberant finale – I knew I was not going to find anything to criticise, so I just sat back and enjoyed the glorious music, superbly played. Thanks to the Society for once more bringing us players of not just the highest technical brilliance, but true artists, able to communicate their joy and love of music in their performance.

More, please.

Review by Harold W. Mead


Revised photo of Busch EnsembleThe Milverton Concert Society never fails to provide first class evenings of fine music. Last Friday kept up this tradition with a top-rate piano trio, the Busch Ensemble, playing Debussy, Schubert and a work by Adolf Busch after whom the trio is named. The Ensemble demonstrates the true internationalism of music – pianist Omri Epstein and ‘cellist Ori Epstein are Israeli brothers and violinist Mathieu van Bellen is from the Netherlands. They have been playing together since 2012, and Mathieu’s instrument is a fine Guadagnini violin once owned by Adolf Busch himself.

The evening opened with Debussy’s G Minor Trio from 1880, written when the composer was 18. The opening bars showed us that least as far as technique is concerned, the Busch Ensemble are up there with the best – perfect balance between the lines, a golden tone and fine legato playing. There were hints in the piano writing of the compositional style which Debussy would develop later, but for the most part this is romantic music which falls very easily on the ear. The intense communication between the three players was obvious throughout the evening and their ensemble playing could not be faulted. The quirky Scherzo was played with panache and insouciance and the opening ‘cello theme of the 3rd movement was gorgeous. This was ‘salon music’ (I’m not being in any way derogatory here) of the highest quality, the lushly romantic tunes being played with real fire. The urgent, busy opening of the final movement led to an explosion of passionate playing for the first half of the movement. Then a series of spare, unison notes from the violin and ‘cello took us into the closing section, becoming increasingly fiery but played with finely controlled intensity.

Adolf Busch fled Hitler’s Germany in 1927 and settled in the United States. Although a contemporary of composers such as Webern, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and others writing in very ‘modernist’ musical idioms, Busch wrote this trio in a backward-looking way as if to say ‘the old methods can still produce some fine music’. The opening themes are lush, occasionally with hints of Brahms and distinct echoes of Reger. The dramatic passages were declaimed with great verve and faultless ensemble, the stormy and occasionally furious writing being played with amazing intensity.

I was most impressed by the precision of the violin and ‘cello pizzicato opening to the 2nd movement – it was as if one person was playing both instruments. As the movement developed we heard spiky phrases with forceful marcato followed by more mellifluous legato passages, all played beautifully with wonderful rapport between the trio. The start of the third movement wanders harmonically, with strange intervals and restless harmonies as if the music is seeking repose and consolation but not quite finding it. Eventually, after another fine duet from the two stringed instruments we were finally led to a calmer, more contented territory and a peaceful conclusion.

The finale is fugal throughout, constantly building towards a climax, but strictly following the classic rules of fugue writing. The occasional periods of quiet respite only served as launch pads for more robust pages, all played with demonic intensity and sheer musicality. This is a work I did not know before, and I will want to explore it again.

After the interval we were treated to one of the pinnacles of trio writing, the incomparable 1827 trio in E Flat by Schubert, who was tragically destined to die a year later. The Busch launched this with great bravura, revelling in the lushness of the writing and with great technical virtuosity and first class ensemble even in the most ferociously demanding passages. In the second movement a beautiful ‘cello statement of the opening melody was equally beautifully echoed by the piano. The final fortissimo statement of the theme by all three instruments was of almost frightening intensity.

The third movement starts with the simplest of melodic material and builds into a wonderfully sonorous fabric. The players wove this tapestry while keeping all of its threads clearly audible – I enjoyed the passage near the end where a lovely legato ‘cello line is supported by cheeky arpeggios from the other two instruments. The Finale contains some of Schubert’s finest piano writing, and Omri revelled in the swirls of arpeggios and runs over the solid string lines. The work ended with a gorgeous re-statement of the theme from the second movement and the playing throughout was of the highest calibre.

Was there nothing to complain about? Not really, but I spoke to another member of the audience at the interval. She is herself a professional musician of the highest calibre and she put her finger on the only possible caveat I might have. Technically these three young men are in the highest rank – their virtuosity is self evident. But it’s an occasionally raw, ‘in your face’ technique. My interval companion said that she would love to hear them play these pieces again in ten years time. By then she said their technical prowess would be tempered by musical and interpretative maturity and their music would be all the better for that. I had to agree – however it was a great evening and I thank the Milverton Concert Society once more for a musical experience to treasure.

Review by Harold W. Mead

Coruscating Digitals

pavel_kolesnikovIt’s not just policemen who seem to be getting younger – you can add world-class concert pianists to that list. I had the sheer pleasure of being in Milverton Church last Friday to hear Pavel Kolesnikov produce a stunning display of keyboard virtuosity and utter musical poetry. He is a wonderfully unassuming young man, looking like Harry Potter with a Simon Rattle hair-do, but in his remarks before each piece he played you could hear not only his deep understanding of the music, but also an intense love for his art.

This was billed as ‘The President’s Concert’. Usually this means an appearance by the Milverton Concert Society’s President Melvyn Tan, but this time he sent a deputy! And what a deputy – the rather bizarre title of this review comes from a 19th century description in the Boston ‘Globe’ of a concert given by the virtuoso pianist Sigismund Thalberg. I couldn’t better it as a phrase to describe what we heard from Pavel.

He opened the programme with Mozart’s 1785 Fantasia in C Minor, a piece which, in places, looks forward to Beethoven and is technically challenging. The decisive opening passages were measured and beautifully controlled. Throughout this performance we heard flawless articulation and perfect dynamics – Pavel kept the texture brilliantly clear by extremely good use of the pedal, never allowing a single note or phrase to become muddied. This was a joy to listen to.

The published programme was then diverted from – we had expected to hear two works by the mystical Russian composer Scriabin, but Pavel explained that he had reconsidered these and had come the conclusion that they didn’t fit with what he wanted the concert to impart. Before telling us what he would play in their place, he brought forward the Beethoven Opus 111 Sonata from the second half of the concert. Again I was riveted by the beautiful texture of the sound in the first movement, the inner voices coming out clearly but in perfect balance with what was going on around them. The second movement is a Beethoven enigma – anyone switching on the radio and coming in to this music would be hard pressed to identify its composer. It is stormy, brilliant and has definite pre-echoes of Liszt. Pavel’s performance of this music was a tour de force – every note crystal clear, passionate playing with total mastery of the instrument.

After the interval, in place of the Scriabin, we heard three of Chopin’s Mazurkas. Before playing them, Pavel said that the Mazurkas were a very rich vein of wonderful music from that composer but tended to be neglected compared to say the Nocturnes or the Polonaises. His advocacy of these pieces was borne out by his playing – note perfect but in no way robotic. Rubato was there but never excessive, and this was lovely playing.

The final item was Schumann’s monumental Fantasy in C Major, this composer’s finest work for the piano. I don’t want to sound boring, but again this was pianistic perfection. Pavel unleashed the volleys of left hand arpeggios in the first movement with great control but also great passion. The sound he produced in the second movement was majestic, sonorous and never cloudy or congested. This movement’s terrifying coda was handled with bravura and aplomb. The contrasts in the finale between the mighty, declamatory passages and the quiet legato melodies showed that Pavel has a quite outstanding musical maturity well beyond his years. The applause was clamorous and deservedly extended. The encore of Chopin’s posthumous Nocturne in C Sharp Minor was a lovely end to the evening.

Once again, Milverton Concert Society has hit the bullseye with a concert of the highest international standard. Keep it up!

Review by Harold W. Mead


Christmas Virtuosity – and Fun!

maddy-1-revYou can always rely on the Milverton Concert Society to come up with something memorable and entertaining for their Christmas offering, and they didn’t disappoint this year. We’ve had the hugely enjoyable Carnival Band twice before, but this time they were joined by the legendary Maddy Prior, who has been singing with them since 1987. The programme was very varied, and gave all members their chance to shine, much to our enjoyment. I’m not going to give an item by item review, but there were many brilliant moments which must be mentioned, within the context of a totally enjoyable evening of first class music-making.

What struck me very forcibly was that many of the carols we heard were totally familiar but they sounded excitingly different. The reason is that having become so used to hearing them through the filter of smooth, elegant, ‘King’s College Cambridge’ like performances, we forget that many of them are folk carols and were originally sung by ordinary people using popular, even rustic, instruments. The sound we got was refreshingly new and most enjoyable.

Band founder Andy Watts displayed stunning virtuosity on a bewildering variety of wind instruments throughout the evening, but special praise must be awarded to him and to Giles Lewin for flawless articulation on two recorders in ‘The Dancing Robin’ and ‘Entre le Boeuf et L’Ȃne Gris’. The rhythms in the first are very asymmetric and the players’ precision and tight ensemble were truly jaw-dropping. I’ve also never before heard a combination of two sets of bagpipes and a mandolin, but Andy, Giles and Steve Vitale made it sound completely natural!

Maddy Prior’s vocal contribution to the evening was superb, as we would have expected. My only reservation was that at times she seemed to be a bit over-miked and there was an occasional loss of clarity in the words as a result. I also found her unceasing jigging about when the band were playing somewhat distracting, but that just may be me being an old curmudgeon. Apart from her solo brilliance, Maddy blended beautifully with the band in the unaccompanied vocal ensembles. The sound in ‘Shepherds Arise’ was glorious –
sonorous, resonant and pitch perfect. In fact this beautifully balanced and solid ensemble sound was maintained throughout all of the unaccompanied items.

The sound of two shawms (mediaeval reed instruments, like oboes on steroids) was ear-splitting in ‘The Boar’s Head’, a tour de force. ‘A Wassail’ was a gorgeously lilting 3/4 song, extolling the virtues of warming drinks to keep out the winter cold. (The interval wine and mince pies reinforced this concept beautifully – thanks, Milverton!) The idea of applying a jazz format to Marc Antoine Charpentier was brilliantly successful as was the vigorously ‘swung’ version of ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’. The highlight for me was again one of the unaccompanied numbers – ‘Poor Little Jesus’ could easily have become a wallow in sentimentality, but the beautiful harmonies and crisp articulation avoided this.

The hundreds of candles around the church, the buzz of a full house and performers of the highest calibre made this an evening of sheer enjoyment. We are now into what I call the ‘Lullay’ season and I am sure there will be many Christmas concerts all over the place. They’ll have to go some to beat this one.

Review by Harold W. Mead


4uartetMilverton church was almost full last Friday for the first concert in the new series presented by the energetic and hard-working Milverton Concert Society. I expect opinions about the evening might be somewhat divided. The curmudgeonly could dismiss it as an interminable string of ‘Classic FM potboilers’. On the other hand, those of us old enough to remember ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ on the radio (perhaps even the ‘wireless’) would have revelled nostalgically as musical jewel after jewel was strung out for our delight.

The occasion brought four young singers called ‘4uartet’, all of whom studied music together at the Alexander Gibson Opera School in Scotland. Now going their separate ways musically, they still sing together, and Friday’s concert was a tribute to Shelagh Blackmore, founder member of the Concert Society who died in 2013. Many of her relatives and friends were present on Friday, and I think she would have loved it.

We heard Natalie Montakhab (soprano), Beth MacKay (mezzo), Warren Gillespie (tenor) and Jamie Rock (baritone) accompanied effortlessly and with brilliance by pianist Marc Verter. The very first item was an SATB arrangement of ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ from ‘South Pacific’ and I do have to say that initially I was uneasy about the ensemble and balance – Natalie dominated to excess, and it took most of the number for the sound to become a bit more homogenous. Once into solo items, we were able to evaluate each singer individually and none disappointed. Beth gave a dramatic rendering of Carmen’s ‘Habanera’, and if I had been Don José, I would have fallen for her on the spot! When Natalie started singing ‘Vilja’ from ‘The Merry Widow’ I was delighted to hear her using the English translation from the 1960’s Sadler’s Wells production – I wore out my LP of that, listening to June Bronhill.

These four young singers were obviously revelling in the joy of singing and they communicated this joy to the audience. Natalie and James’s ‘Pa –pa-pa- Papageno/Papagena’ from ‘Magic Flute’ was delightful, the famous duet from ‘Lakme’ (think British Airways ad) was as good a performance of this as I have ever heard, and Jamie’s ‘Non Piu Andrai’ from Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ was equally fine.

There was a great deal to enjoy in every number, but I felt that just occasionally, interpretation and understanding of what was being sung about became subservient to the technicalities of the music. Mozart’s incomparable ‘Soave Sia Il Vento’ from ‘Cosí Fan Tutte’ was case in point – yes all the notes were there, the dynamics were scrupulously observed, but I didn’t get the feeling that here were two loving couples facing the heartbreak of separation. I had similar thoughts toward the end of the concert in the quartet from ‘Rigoletto’ – technically good, but lacking some depth of feeling.

On the other hand, Warren’s rendering of Lensky’s aria, sung just before Lensky goes to duel with his best friend Eugene Onegin, was masterly, and if this had been in an actual performance on stage it would have brought the house down. I totally agreed with Natalie’s dislike of people being stuffy and snobby about Gilbert and Sullivan, but her performance of ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ was rhythmically undisciplined. She has a terrific soprano range, but if Sullivan had intended Gianetta to sing a fortissimo top C at the end of ‘Regular Royal Queen’, he would have written it.

The duets were invariably lovely performances – Natalie and Beth were superb in the opening of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and in the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ prayer duet. The inevitable ‘Pearl Fishers’ duet was a triumph for Warren and Jamie, and ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ was also lovely.

The jewel of the evening was in no way operatic – it was Warren’s exquisite performance of the Burns song ‘By Yon Castle Wall’.

I don’t want my critical comments to detract significantly from what was a thoroughly enjoyable evening for me and I am sure everyone who was there. 4uartet gave us their all, and here were four young, good-looking, highly talented and enthusiastic singers every one of whom deserves success in their chosen profession. As I said at the beginning, this was a real Friday Music Night in every sense, and Milverton should be proud of what their Concert Society sets out to do and invariably achieves.

Harold Mead

World-Class Performance

Elizabeth Watts Simon LepperA large and expectant audience crowded into St Michael’s Church, Milverton on 7 March for a concert by soprano Elizabeth Watts and pianist Simon Lepper. Both artists have established and growing international reputations, and travel schedules to match; but since Elizabeth lives near Taunton, and has an enthusiastic local following, the occasion had the atmosphere of a family gathering. It was, by any standards, a triumph.

Elizabeth’s versatility is prodigious: she is equally at home on the operatic stage (most recently as Zerlina in Don Giovanni at Covent Garden), in Baroque and contemporary repertoire, in oratorio, and in major works with orchestra by Richard Strauss, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams. But, as winner of the Song Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2007, it was in the realm of the art song that she emerged as a major new talent. She takes great care in devising her own programmes: on this occasion the theme was ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, a story of love, self-sacrifice, rejection – a whole gamut of emotions encompassing joy and sorrow. A varied and coherent choice of songs explored this range of intense feelings; and, most helpfully, translations of all the texts were provided, which greatly assisted understanding and appreciation.

The first group of songs, by Richard Strauss, encompassed a composing career of more than 50 years, including early works and possibly the last piece he wrote. Dreams, memories, tenderness – all were evoked in expressive, chromatically intense music of great dramatic power. Elizabeth Watts managed to give each musical phrase its own unique character, shading and adapting her rich and radiant tone to extract the maximum of meaning from the words, and using a formidable technique to sustain and shape extended soaring lines of melody.

There followed five songs by Henri Duparc, a long-lived composer whose life was blighted by mental illness and who destroyed much of his work: the quality of what remains reinforces the tragedy of this loss. These settings of French Romantic poetry take us to a world of lush sensuality and perfumed luxury, but perhaps the predominant feelings are loss, suffering and unfulfilled longing – promising material for both composer and interpreters! Here it was apparent that Elizabeth Watts is as fine an actor as she is a singer – the intensity of the dramatic presentation equalled the beauty of the singing, and the audience was rapt.

After the interval we heard The Poet’s Echo by Benjamin Britten – a rarely heard setting of poems by Pushkin, composed for Britten’s friends, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and her husband, the legendary cellist (and, evidently, outstanding pianist) Mstislav Rostropovich. Here, too, the theme is lack of fulfilment – the poet seeks to communicate, to find love and understanding, but there is no answer. Musically this is a fascinating work: to complement the rhapsodic, declamatory lines of the soloist, the piano offers, not a conventional accompaniment, but as it were an independent interpretation – intricate, delicate, scintillating – of the words. This is a piece that surely demands repeated listening. It received a passionate and gripping performance, in which Elizabeth Watts showed that she is as much at home with the Russian language as she is with French, German and Spanish.

Tribute must be paid to the outstanding artistry of accompanist Simon Lepper.
Indeed, ‘accompanist’ seems a misnomer: this was a partnership of musical equals. Whether in the muscular Romanticism of Strauss, the impressionistic, quasi-orchestral colourings of Duparc, or the glittering precision of Britten, Simon Lepper’s sensitive, delicate and at times powerful virtuosity was an ideal complement to his musical partner, and their instinctive coordination was a delight to hear.

After so much emotional intensity, the last section of the programme, of works from the Spanish-speaking world, came as a distinct relief – although the underlying theme of unrequited yearning, and loss, was still present, the musical language was less stark. Highlights were Granados’ ‘The Maiden and the Nightingale’ with a melody which clutches at the heartstrings, and the vigorous, tongue-in-cheek ‘El Vito’ by Obradors, where one could almost hear the castanets: an ideal ending to the programme. Here too Elizabeth Watts held the audience in the palm of her hand. In response to the tempestuous applause, the audience was rewarded with two encores: a haunting miniature by Rimsky Korsakov, and the story of perhaps the best-known nightingale in music – who sang in Berkeley Square.

This was an imaginative and original programme which could be enjoyed on different levels – as an exploration of some of the most profound components of human experience, as a comparison of musical styles, or just as a way to revel in beautiful sounds made by two of the finest musicians on the contemporary concert stage. The programme will shortly be heard at London’s Wigmore Hall and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw – this shows the standard aspired to, and achieved, by Milverton Concert Society who deserve the gratitude of the music-lovers of Somerset.

Review by Andrew Carter