A Tribute to Yfrah Neaman – 9 June

Music by Bloch, Debussy, Elgar, Ferguson, Mozart and Vladigerov

Endellion String Quartet [Andrew Watkinson & Ralph de Souza (violins); Garfield Jackson (viola) & David Waterman (cello)]

Ida Haendel
Mincho Minchev
Krzysztof Smietana
Radoslaw Szulc (violin)

Gordon Back & Nigel Hutchinson (piano)

Emma Gane (soprano)

Guildhall School Chamber Orchestra
Wells Cathedral School Strings
Andrea Quinn

Concert presented by Michael Berkeley

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 9 June, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The large audience included many of Yfrah Neaman’s friends and colleagues for a concert that celebrated a very full and meaningful life. “Blink and you’d miss him!” said Virginia Harding (the Administrator of the Carl Flesch International Violin Concerto) in one of numerous tributes to Neaman. The Lebanese-born violinist (1923-2003) was Head of Strings at the Guildhall School, a soloist and chamber music player, a loyal and dedicated teacher and a tireless administrator and jury member: charming and indefatigable. His solo repertoire included the standard concertos and numerous contemporary works that he championed or were written for him; his discography includes the concertos of Roberto Gerhard, Peter Racine Fricker and Don Banks.

This concert embraced Neaman’s achievements and enthusiasms. Yfrah translates as ’He shall flourish’. Reading about Neaman’s life confirms that his name was, indeed, prophetic. He was Artistic Director of the Portsmouth (re-named London International) String Quartet Competition. Its first year, 1979, found the Takács as winner and the Endellion second. The latter opened this concert with Debussy’s G minor Quartet, the highlight being the slow movement, given raptly, Garfield Jackson’s viola solos reminding that France is only the other side of the channel.

A similar cross-channel reference in Howard Ferguson’s Second Sonata. Ferguson was Neaman’s recital partner for many years; they premiered this sonata in 1947. It’s wholly personal in an absolute sense with a Fauré-like sensibility and a soupçon (no more) of Szymanowski (or perhaps the Ravel of Tzigane); it’s Englishness is most apparent in the Finale, with material that has a Waltonian generosity. It’s an intense work, or seemed so in Radoslaw Szulc’s rendition. Polish-born Szulc (a pupil of Neaman’s and currently leader of the Bavarian Radio SO) aligned Ferguson’s fastidious compositional craft with his lyrical heart, Nigel Hutchinson a sympathetic partner.

Szulc’s ’modern’, clean-cut and incisive approach contrasted with Mincho Minchev’s previous-generation richness (rather tight vibrato), that was maybe determined by Pancho Vladigerov’s Bulgarian Rhapsody (Gordon Back the pianist), a folk- and café-tune medley, a knees-up to display Minchev’s bravura, which continued with his unaccompanied encore – also indigenous? – of rapid-fire semiquavers.

Krzysztof Smietana was delightfully elegant in style and sound, his bow pliable, for ’Non temer, amato bene’ from Mozart’s Idomeneo, Emma Gane (as Idamante) dramatic in performance, natural in stage-presence.

Ida Haendel’s appearance was keenly anticipated. She didn’t disappoint, not even by only playing one movement from Bloch’s Baal Shem rather than all Three Pictures. Her presentation of Nigun was focussed and intense without being dominating, and she was well supported by the Guildhall Chamber Orchestra under Andrea Quinn. It was difficult to hear Haendel’s spoken introduction to her ’encore’ – save she mentioned Handel and it being arranged by Carl Flesch (with whom Neaman had studied). Haendel similarly got to the heart of this ’Prayer’. Michael Berkeley, the Master of Ceremonies for the evening, mentioned something about a Handel Te Deum but, to be honest, I’m none the wiser given that the music didn’t sound remotely Handelian!

Finally, the massed strings of the Guildhall and Wells Cathedral School (the latter enjoyed Neaman’s regular visits to teach and advise) played Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, the Endellion returning as the solo quartet. Andrea Quinn had a definite view on the music, affirmatively realised by the players. While I would have swapped some of Quinn’s misplaced heart-on-sleeve approach for a traversal of the Fugue that was more aware of poignant remembrances, the quality of the performance itself gives one huge hope for the future and crowned this moving collective ’thank you’ to Yfrah Neaman.

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