St Luke’s Church, Brighton, Saturday 20th January 2018
This season has been based around less familiar works by Gustav Holst and if the third concert seemed a little tenuous, with the opening work an orchestral suite arranged from Purcell’s incidental music for The Virtuous Wife, it was nonetheless convincingly warm in its approach and frequently sounded more like Holst than Purcell! The lovely Slow Air had a melancholy feel closely related to Dido and a final Hornpipe which could comfortably have come from the same work.
By contrast, Gerald Finzi’s beautiful Eclogue was ravishingly well crafted both from the string orchestra and pianist Rachel Fryer. It is a shame that a work of this quality, presumably because of its short duration, is so rarely heard live. There is a real sense of narrative progress within it and gentle hints of Dies Natalis surface along the way. After this even Mozart’s Divertimento K137 seemed rather pedestrian no matter how succinctly structured and played here with considerable bite.
The main challenge of the evening, for all concerned, was Bela Bartock’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. In his regular introductions to these concerts, Peter Copley had stressed the need to approach the work from the heart rather than the head and not get too carried away by academic analysis, useful as this can be. In this he was certainly right for the work is an emotional tour-de-force and very demanding of its listeners. For those who don’t know the work, and it was obvious many in Brighton were hearing it for the first time, there is an austerity and fierceness to the writing which can be difficult to grasp. It has the tension we find in many of Shostakovich’s symphonies, linked to outbreaks of wildness and ecstasy which seem to come from nowhere. The second movement Allegro is edgy in its attack but dissolves into dancing, while the Adagio’s fluid opening gives way to a visionary expansiveness, like Elgar’s great bronze doors, only to cut back and be reduced to silence. All of this is caught up in the fire of the final Allegro molto.
It is a very demanding work and there were moments it seemed to almost slip away from even the best of the string players but Andrew Sherwood managed his forces with considerable skill, keeping tempi realistic and clarity always to the fore. This was a daring undertaking, well worth the effort and highly commendable in outcome – would that more ensembles took this sort of risk with challenging scores. The string orchestra were joined by Adam Bushell leading the percussion, harpist Alexander Rider and Rachel Fryer returned for the piano part.
Southover Church, Lewes, Saturday 23 September 2017
As a contemporary composer, Peter Copley has a wonderful knack of creating music which is immediately accessible and yet has hidden depths which demand to be explored. His most recent composition – a double concerto for two violins and strings – was given its premiere performance at the start of the Musicians of All Saints new season, alongside works by Elgar, Holst and Mozart, and I have no hesitation in saying it was perfectly at home in this company.
Before the concert commenced he spoke about his approach to the work and in particular his interest in the baroque. While many composers have used earlier music as a basis for their own compositions there is always the danger of pastiche. Peter Copley avoids this by using the structures, one might say the grammar, of the baroque while applying to it a contemporary vocabulary. Skimming the score visually, it could be by Couperin, Bach or Purcell, but a closer look reveals a more challenging harmonic structure and melodic lines which could only have been written since the late twentieth century. The frisson was telling and superbly caught by the two solo violinists, Jenny Sacha and Laura Stanford, who threw themselves into the whirlpool of sound which emerges from the outer movements. Between these is a superb Largo, its faint hints of the Bach double violin concerto just there in the background while the melodic overtones seem to lean towards Rachmaninov. In so many ways it should not work – but it really does.
I very much hope to hear it again soon – and better still that others will be encouraged to take it up, to the profound enjoyment of both players and audience.
Conducting the Musicians of All Saints, Andrew Sherwood had put together a well-balanced programme opening with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, with its hushed, translucent slow movement gently filling the church with its warmth. Holst is to be the featured composer throughout this series, with lesser known chamber works in every concert. The first brought us the more familiar St Paul’s Suite which seemed almost too loud after the Elgar but also brought some very well judged crescendos and changes in dynamic impact.
Mozart’s Divertimento in F major K138 was the only work which seemed slightly out of place amidst all the English music surrounding it. If the slow movement had an over-serious intensity, the finale smiled on us. This was a splendid start in a very fine venue.
St Michael’s Church, Lewes, Saturday 4 March 2017
St Michael’s is a fine venue for chamber music, almost too close for a full string orchestra but one which allows the warmth and detail of scoring to have maximum impact.
The evening opened with Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto using reduced forces which encouraged bright rhythms and a dancelike quality throughout.
Robin Milford is not a familiar name today but the two pieces we heard both witnessed to a sad neglect of a fine composer.
The Concertino in E dates from 1955 and each of the three movements opens with a piano solo. Margaret Fingerhut has worked closely with the Musicians of All Saints as was evident from the easy rapport between orchestra and soloist. The work is openly romantic and the writing for strings confident in its expression. The central Romanza has a haunting melody which is richly orchestrated, and as such deserves to be far better known. The concluding Rondo is rather more on the wild side if not quite as moving as the earlier two movements.
Fishing by Moonlight is marginally better known, again deeply romantic, though there is little obvious link between what we hear and the title. The calm opening builds to a surprisingly loud impact and the danced central section makes a subtle contrast to the outer sections. The work is available on Hyperion and it would be good to think that others, as well as the Robin Milford Trust, might take up these works.
Bartok’s Divertimento for string orchestra is a much tougher item. There is a fierce intensity to the opening Allegro non troppo which gives way to the intense, quietly oppressive, Molto adagio. If the mood lightens a little for the final Allegro assai there is still a hint of menace behind the melody.
Leader Sophia Bartlette provided the solo violin parts in the Divertimento with a pleasing sense of attack and phrasing.
Peter Copley had spoken at the beginning about the relationship of light music to serious music, and the continuing confusion about the terminology. Robin Milford’s works could easily be dismissed as light music when what the critic really means is they are actually accessible on a first hearing! Peter Copley’s own scores have the virtue of accessibility but should not be dismissed as light as a result. His new Tango is a most enjoyable piece but I suspect rather more challenging for the performers than it sounds for the audience. The tight rhythms and constant subtle changes of pace are exhilarating and were obviously enjoyed by both orchestra and pianist. Margaret Fingerhut did not need to change into her sparkling silver sequins to add a Latin tang to the event – it was more than obvious from the sparkle of the music.
St Luke’s Church, Brighton, Saturday 8 November 2014
If the main focus of the concert was to bring us the premiere of Peter Copley’s new Piano Concerto, the first half led us gently towards it.
The Musicians of All Saints under Andrew Sherwood opened with Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op6 No1. If the rich acoustic tended to over-romanticise the sound it also gave an extra bloom to the strings which easily filled the building. The solo trio was impressive in the Adagio and there was a lively zeal to the final Allegro.
Mozart’s Divertimento K 138 is an early work which produced both fire and humour in the final Presto.
However the finest moment of the first half came with a deeply felt reading of Grieg’s string arrangement of Last Spring, its gentle melancholy and warmth being splendidly balanced.
The three movements of Peter Copley’s new piano concerto may last only a little over twenty minutes but the intensity of the writing holds us firmly throughout. The opening Toccata with Interlude is marked presto agitato and tips us headlong into an insistent sycopated rhythm which for most of the time contrasts staccato strings against rolling piano figuration. This suddenly gives way to a beautiful solo line for the first viola, a post-Elgarian figure somewhere between nobility and pain. When the dominant rhythmic urgency returns the piano takes a more lyrical though still powerfully etched position. At the end of the movement a solo violin takes up the viola melody which is cut off suddenly and the piano rounds things off with a deft downward plunge.
The second movement Chacony allows the piano to come more into its own. Where the opening movement had often seemed to absorb the piano into the overall texture, here the piano has more chance to speak for itself, being allowed an extended quasi cadenza which brings together many of the ideas already explored across the first two movements.
The final Fugue and Scherzo opens with the strings alone and it is some time before they are joined by the pianist. There is a sense of joy and almost frenetic energy here, particularly in the piano part which sparkles and scintillates throughout. As the climax approaches the pianist returns to the rolling figures which have become such of part of the composition until a final glissandi hangs in the air above a last pizzicato from the strings. Margaret Fingerhut communicated a sense of delight in the work throughout and her playing had a lightness of touch and joyfulness which was surely intended by the composer.
The sense of enthusiasm and life are evident throughout this new concerto which is to be given a number of performances over the coming months. Hopefully you will get a chance to hear it – the second performance will be on 29 January 2015 7.30pm at Blackheath Concert Halls with Trinity Laban Conservatoire Sinfonia, conducted by Andrew Sherwood with Margaret Fingerhut again as the soloist.
Having Margaret Fingerhut available for the day enabled the Musicians of All Saints to run a master-class in the morning for a number of highly talented if very young pianists. They performed a wide range of works for us, and were then encouraged to look at specific aspects of their preparation. Margaret Fingerhut stressed that practice should be just that – working in specific details, not simply playing pieces through again and again. She encouraged the young players to draw the sound out of the piano through their sense of touch rather than demanding a reaction from it. She reflected on the fact that for pianists, starting to learn is easy as the notes are already there. The problem comes with learning to control touch and nuance, particularly when the right hand seems built the wrong way round for voicing a melodic line. From the quality of playing we heard from these young performers we could easily hear of them again in a few years’ time!