British Premières at Wigmore Hall – Tippett, Colin Matthews & MacMillan

Sonata for Four Horns
Colin Matthews
Eleven Studies in Velocity
Fourteen Little Pictures

Musicians from the Royal College of Music

Adam Howcroft, Mark Bennett, Daniel Coghill & Bryn Coveney (horns)

Alex Wilson (piano)

Mari Poll (violin), Jun Sasaki (cello) & Joseph Houston (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 25 May, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The third of this intriguing triptych celebrating premières of British music at the Wigmore Hall brought us much closer to the present day, beginning with Sir Michael Tippett’s Sonata for Four Horns of 1955. Unfortunately the programme note again failed to give details of the premiere itself, which was given by the dedicatee Dennis Brain and his horn ensemble. It is a piece whose wit is immediately apparent, Tippett setting humorous asides against serious held chords. The four horn players from the RCM took to this work extremely well, especially the scurrying figurations of the second movement and the tricky, long-breathed high notes of the dusky third movement. This is the work’s emotional highpoint, the music often hovering in mid-air before proceeding with its next thought. The finale was truly vigoroso, as directed, ending in consonant splendour. Ensemble was extremely good throughout, subtly led but all four instrumentalists thinking as one.

The sonority of the horns was contrasted by Colin Matthews’s studies for piano, which often explore the instrument’s capability for percussiveness and volume. These eleven brief depictions, first performed in Wigmore Hall by William Howard on 2 October 1987, are flexible in conception, the composer specifying that not all need be played, and that even the order should not matter, providing the slow nocturne is placed near the end. Alex Wilson gave a strong performance, varying his approach to each and giving a helpful pause between them. Since Matthews opted to keep the music flexible, although Wilson may have played the pieces in published order, I opted to register the image that each conjured up. In turn, we had swirls of water (1), washing blowing in the wind (2), a fox restlessly running through the night (the left-hand only 3), small shreds of paper being thrown in the air (4), a rag (5), the left and right hands chasing each other on the piano (6), a small vortex of leaves (7), printing machinery (8), a bird on the wind (the right-hand only 9), the nocturne (10) and a plane approaching take-off (11). Though fanciful and highly subjective, these observations are designed to show Matthews’s ability to bring images through the shortest of musical mediums, with each piece around the one-minute mark. Wilson’s excellent performance helped communicate these messages.

The recital finished with a work first performed by Peter Frankl, György Pauk and Ralph Kirshbaum on 21 May 1997. James MacMillan’s Fourteen Little Pictures is through-composed, the boundaries between each image blurred at times, but in this intense and often-dramatic performance the extended suite received robust advocacy. There were several striking passages as the players seized the initiative, particularly when Mari Poll and Jun Sasaki exchanged ornamented melodies as the basis of the eighth Picture, but also in the clangourous climax of the piece, marked fffff. In truth this passage felt exaggerated and overcharged, though the effective postlude helped make sense of the wreckage afterwards, Joseph Houston’s final notes tolling at one of the lowest pitches on the piano. Sensibly, to heighten the impact of performance, the three players stayed stock still until all sound had died away, completing an extremely interesting hour of music.

That more people were not able to attend was regrettable, but Wigmore Hall deserves great credit in its innovations of programming and assistance to young performers, all of whom seemed to take a great deal from the experience.

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