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 didn’t given Balsom played from behind the audience – the premiere of Martin Butler’s 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 Balsom’s thoughtful account of Toru Takemitsu’s unaccompanied Paths, a refined, slowly-evolving space-creating journey, very precise in muted contrasts and range of tonguing. Less focussed was Steve Martland’s Duo, a diverse, idea-spilling piece that didn’t quite add up, Tippettian blues-tinged outlines the most effective. Not without its own considerable difficulties, Martland’s 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 composer’s 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 composer’s energetic confrontation of transcendental technique. Balsom’s poise came into its own with Cornelius Cardew’s Three Rhythmic Pieces (also 1955). Cardew died twenty years ago, a hit-and-run victim, aged 45; his three Webernesque studies expose the trumpeter’s skills of accurate pitching while reminding of two great orchestral trumpet solos – from Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony (intervallic) and Elliott Carter’s Symphony of Three Orchestras (flourish and dexterity).
Elizabeth Atherton’s stage presence, communication and sense of characterisation was bold in Thomas Ades’s 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 Maconchy’s Sun, Moon and Stars, shades of grey with little melodic variance, and gave a powerful rendition of Judith Bingham’s 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 Bennett’s 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 didn’t perhaps have the opportunity to show the full range of his talents with a programme of unaccompanied music. Pierre Boulez’s 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 Smith’s Epitaphs (apparently he’s 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, Mason’s reading of the (short) texts added little. Mason was a committed advocate of Ben Foskett’s Hornet (premiere); its halting progress and visceral release well suggested and attained. Martin Butler’s 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 Cutler’s (re)GAIA or (with piano) Butler’s meditative Suzanne’s River Song, its rising fifths and Berg’s concerto inextricable, she proved a magnetic interpreter with clean, assured playing and spot-on intonation, especially vital in Jonathan Harvey’s mysterious Flight-Elegy (inspired by a violin-colleague who crashed his plane; no marks on the body, the plane never found), which echoes Vaughan Williams’s Lark, now ascended further to colder climes, wings of ice suggested by the violin’s 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 clich├ęs – it cries out for a John Williams orchestral background – meandered a while long. Graham Fitkin’s 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 Trickey’s transparent playing-style and Poster’s bravura.
The final concert of this year’s PLG series (11 January) was a disappointment.
Jessica Chan’s a fine pianist, light of touch and sensitive to nuance. Martin Butler – this year’s 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, ’Cora’s 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 concert’s repertoire was concerned. Dierdre McKay’s ’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 Horne’s 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, I’m not sure if there’s 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 Andriessen’s 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. Andriessen’s resourcefulness segued – more by luck than judgement – into Brian Elias’s 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, Pleasance’s rather squally top register, emaciated timbre and questionable intonation may not have helped them! Daryl Runswick’s Lady Lazarus is a concept of Sylvia Plath’s 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 Pleasance’s drama, better to read Plath’s words for oneself.
Plath’s final words – “And I eat men like air” – might indicate that next year’s much-looked-forward-to PLG week will be female only. Indeed, from this year, of those artists I have reviewed, I’m 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.

 

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