This latest PLG New Year Series ended, quite unusually, with three solo performers. Each programme was centred on the music of David Matthews who, in the early-evening recital, was heard in conversation with composer James Francis Brown – a relaxed and informal discussion in part belied by the selected pieces. Darkness Draws In (Opus 102, 2005) was written for the 2006 Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition – the pre-eminent such event held on the Isle of Man, which doubtless occasioned deployment of the Manx ditty ‘Arrane Oie Vie’ (Goodnight Song) as the basis for four contrasted though audibly related variations that culminate in eloquent restatements of the tune. Written for violin, and heard in its 1999 version for viola, Winter Journey (Opus 32a, 1982) is more ambitious: a single-movement sequence of 11 sections as outline an emotional journey inspired by Schubert’s Winterreise, not least its vacillation between major and minor. Diana Mathews was dedicated to both works, though the Purcell Room’s notoriously flattened-out perspective did her playing few favours.
The later-evening recital was divided between cello and piano. Ariana Kashefi opened proceedings with Ligeti’s early yet formidably accomplished Solo Cello Sonata (one movement from 1948, the other from 1953), doing equal justice to its ruminative ‘Dialogo’ and incisive ‘Capriccio’, before she tackled the very different challenges of David Matthews’s Journeying Songs (2004-8). Although conceived and first heard separately, these three pieces form an entity of no mean cohesion – the eventful and relatively discursive ‘Song for Judith [Weir]’ being followed by the elegant ‘Song for Elaine [Gould]’, before ‘Song for Gemma [Rosefield]’ afforded a lively and characterful conclusion. Kashefi returned after the interval with the Passacaglia (1980) that was among William Walton’s last works, its compact sequence of 10 variations on a notably inward theme a reminder that this composer’s later pieces continue to be undervalued, then concluded with From Night (2014) by Deborah Pritchard – a PLG commission whose first performance revealed a searching and atmospheric traversal of cello timbre that warrants further hearings.
Alternating with Kashefi was Dominic Degavino, who began with the formidable and rarely heard Variations on a Theme of Beethoven (1990) that is the only solo piano work of Robert Simpson’s maturity – the first 21 variations on a fragmentary Bagatelle (WoO61a) charting a tensile course towards two meditative studies of rapt intensity, with a large-scale finale whose rhetorical climax is pointedly dispersed at the close. Degavino then confirmed his versatility with ‘L’escalier du diable’ (1993), the 13th of Ligeti’s Etudes and a marvel of polyrhythmic interplay rendered here with due panache. After the interval, a welcome revival of Matthews’s only (so far) Piano Sonata (1989) – its nominal three movements made into a fluid continuity whose verve is tempered in the limpid slow section, prior to a ‘scherzo’ of syncopated wit then a brief ‘finale’ of coruscating energy. Degavino is a pianist from whom much can be expected and he signed off with The Shorter Ring (2012) – Matthews’s highly ingenious reduction of Wagner’s tetralogy into barely five minutes’ worth of teasing allusions and unarguable logic.
This was an impressive conclusion to this PLG week. With the imminent closure of the Purcell Room (and Queen Elizabeth Hall), the next New Year Series is re-named Spring Series and will take place between 18 & 22 April 2016 in the appreciably different acoustic of St John’s, Smith Square. It will also be Park Lane Group's 60th-anniversary.