Blowing your own trumpet is not a particularly likeable trait unless you can do it as well as Alison Balsom. She may have been a bit slippy in the top register and between awkward intervals in the 7.30 recital on 7 January, but she played with admirable poise, rich tone and musicality.
Sharing this concert, soprano Elizabeth Atherton clearly has a bright future especially on the opera-stage and as part of music-theatre projects. She is uninhibited and full of confidence, albeit tone-production discolours in the bottom range and enunciation could be clearer. Both ladies came together for the opening item. Or rather they didnt given Balsom played from behind the audience the premiere of Martin Butlers Prelude, a setting of Walt Whitman; the soprano has Coplandesque expression, the trumpeter a nocturnal refraction that wafts the air.
The two soloists otherwise played with piano accompaniment Alasdair Beatson (for Balsom) and Iain Farrington, both attentive and accomplished.
This excepted Balsoms thoughtful account of Toru Takemitsus unaccompanied Paths, a refined, slowly-evolving space-creating journey, very precise in muted contrasts and range of tonguing. Less focussed was Steve Martlands Duo, a diverse, idea-spilling piece that didnt quite add up, Tippettian blues-tinged outlines the most effective. Not without its own considerable difficulties, Martlands Duo succumbs to the barrage of demands that Peter Maxwell Davies throws at the trumpeter in his Sonata, Op.1 (1955), written for fellow-students Elgar Howarth and the late John Ogdon. The high-register writing is a clue to the composers signature; a suggestion of Hindemith in the opening bars an unexpected side-step. Although under some pressure, Balsom made no compromises to put across the composers energetic confrontation of transcendental technique. Balsoms poise came into its own with Cornelius Cardews Three Rhythmic Pieces (also 1955). Cardew died twenty years ago, a hit-and-run victim, aged 45; his three Webernesque studies expose the trumpeters skills of accurate pitching while reminding of two great orchestral trumpet solos from Franz Schmidts Fourth Symphony (intervallic) and Elliott Carters Symphony of Three Orchestras (flourish and dexterity).
Elizabeth Athertons stage presence, communication and sense of characterisation was bold in Thomas Adess Life Story as she unfolded the Billie Holliday-like vocals to a text of reminiscences following casual sex against a metrically-different piano part. She could do little with Elizabeth Maconchys Sun, Moon and Stars, shades of grey with little melodic variance, and gave a powerful rendition of Judith Binghams The Shadow Side of Joy Finzi: A Mad Song, declamatory, terse and intense, not a little owed to Britten. As a lighter contrast she spiritedly aired two Berio settings of love-related texts (Genovese and Sicilian) La Donna Ideale/Ballo both arranged as original folk-tunes with singularly inventive piano writing. Richard Rodney Bennetts A Garland for Marjory Fleming proved sweet, sharp and charming; the penultimate song, Sweet Isabell (sic), being especially touching and movingly performed.
The 7.30 concert on 10 January juxtaposed pieces for clarinet and violin played, respectively, by Andrew Mason and Sara Trickey.
Mason didnt perhaps have the opportunity to show the full range of his talents with a programme of unaccompanied music. Pierre Boulezs Domaines was concisely revealed, the six cahiers played Boulez allows any order A, F, C, B, E and D, Mason cleverly opting to present the miroirs of each as a palindromic sequence; Boulez extends this freedom to allow a choice of techniques to inform each original and miroir, first choices determining later decisions. William O Smiths Epitaphs (apparently hes Bill Smith in the jazz world) is for two simultaneously-played clarinets, which Mason did with aplomb. Although Smith is courted as the leading innovator of clarinet music, these eight aphorisms, based on Ancient Greek texts, seemed rather naively experimental, best left for private study. Only the final one A Dolphin had any suggestion of source, motion through depths. Unless specified by the composer, Masons reading of the (short) texts added little. Mason was a committed advocate of Ben Fosketts Hornet (premiere); its halting progress and visceral release well suggested and attained. Martin Butlers Capistrano Song introduces a pre-recorded tape of bells, more sample than the real thing. Butler treats the inevitability of an annual event When the swallows return to Capistrano not as pealing jubilation but as an ascending line of graceful flight, the interaction of bell-sounds a compelling supplement.
Violinist Sara Trickey made a big impression. Whether in the sustained Bartokian intensity of Joe Cutlers (re)GAIA or (with piano) Butlers meditative Suzannes River Song, its rising fifths and Bergs concerto inextricable, she proved a magnetic interpreter with clean, assured playing and spot-on intonation, especially vital in Jonathan Harveys mysterious Flight-Elegy (inspired by a violin-colleague who crashed his plane; no marks on the body, the plane never found), which echoes Vaughan Williamss Lark, now ascended further to colder climes, wings of ice suggested by the violins highest register; the pianist, Tom Poster, required to play inside the piano to sound-haunting effect. Poster himself accompanied Trickey in his own Illumination, which in its romantic lyricism and filmic clichés it cries out for a John Williams orchestral background meandered a while long. Graham Fitkins 12-minute Bolt also lost the plot after a promising start of rhythmic impetus and sleek contrasts; Stavinskian clarity and suggestions of Delian harmonic wash ideal for Trickeys transparent playing-style and Posters bravura.
The final concert of this years PLG series (11 January) was a disappointment.
Jessica Chans a fine pianist, light of touch and sensitive to nuance. Martin Butler this years PLG featured composer and a very good week for him opened proceedings with Small Change, eight short pieces of and beyond the salon, each economic and engaging, Coras Greeting seeming to have Happy Birthday as a seam. (That Chan required the page-turner to do so between movements seemed ignominious.) That was as good as it got as far as this concerts repertoire was concerned. Dierdre McKays time, shining was icily-impressionistic doodling, harmonically spare, which got nowhere very, very slowly (no page-turns in ten minutes!). To close her recital, Jessica Chan played, from memory, David Hornes Liszt, a sort of take on his Dante Sonata, bits of the B minor Sonata and Faust Symphony clearly identifiable. Fun for Horne to cut, paste and mix Lisztian fragments, and a challenge for the performer, ably met by Chan, but when Liszt himself was so prolific, Im not sure if theres need for more, however spoof or tongue-in-cheek Horne is being.
The second half featured soprano Stefani Pleasance, as much dramatic actress as singer, possibly more so, certainly cabaret performer. Louis Andriessens Bloodchappenlijste van een gifmengster (Shopping List of the Female Poison Mixer) found clipboard-holding Pleasance scribing with nail on sandpaper to provide a ratchet-sounding unison to her rhythmically-intoned and sinisterly-relished inventory of poisons. Andriessens resourcefulness segued more by luck than judgement into Brian Eliass Song, John-Paul Gandy an adept handle-turner on the hurdy-gurdy, its (overdone) drone supporting the exotic, snake-charming vocal line (text from The Song of Solomon) that Pleasance gave generously and with actions. Gandy proved an adept pianist in the premiere of Three Songs by David Bedford, the piano parts more interesting than the always-melodic but shapeless vocal line (words by Ernest Dowson and Kenneth Patchen); however, Pleasances rather squally top register, emaciated timbre and questionable intonation may not have helped them! Daryl Runswicks Lady Lazarus is a concept of Sylvia Plaths poem as expressed by an actress underlining the text with hysteria and schizophrenic tendencies. (One wonders how Berio or Ligeti would approach this.) For all Pleasances drama, better to read Plaths words for oneself.
Plaths final words And I eat men like air might indicate that next years much-looked-forward-to PLG week will be female only. Indeed, from this year, of those artists I have reviewed, Im sure Elizabeth Atherton, Alison Balsom and Sara Trickey are all going far indeed. I must also mention pianist Mari Saka whose recital of Butler, Birtwistle and Norgard was inspired.