Harriet Mackenzie and Friends

Violin Sonata in F
Kiss on Wood
Who let the cat out last night?
Die Stücke der Windrose for salon orchestra – Osten; Westen
An eventful morning somewhere near East London [World premiere]

Harriet Mackenzie (violin)

Yue Shen (piano)

The New Professionals
Tim Murray

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 May, 2006
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Having appeared as part of the Park Lane Group’s Young Artist Series in 2003, Harriet Mackenzie here gave a performance as part of the of the SBC’s “Fresh: Young Musicians’ Platform” which ably demonstrated her abilities as a recital, ensemble and concerto soloist.

Admittedly the first half did not fully convince. The sonata by Arnold Bax (1928) was until recently only known in its reworking as the Nonet. Yet there is much to be said for this original incarnation – its uncluttered textures bringing out the harmonic astringency of a work whose two movements, a disquieting Moderato followed by a bracing Allegro, make an unusual but satisfying whole. Mackenzie had the measure of its expressive breadth and brought a touching repose to the coda, though her intonation was variable and her phrasing could have made rather more of Bax’s opulent melodic lines.

Two contrasting contemporary pieces came next. James MacMillan’s Kiss on Wood (1994) works the Good Friday versicle ‘Ecce lignum crucis’ into a meditation of some fervency, to which Mackenzie’s response was a shade too detached. Similarly, she was equal to all the demands of Paul Schoenfield’s Who let the cat out last night? (1980) – a fusion of jazz, blues and country elements within a Bartók-meets-Ives idiom that needs to sound less calculated if its often acerbic humour is fully to register. No reservations, though, about Yue Shen’s pianism – which evinced a sensitivity and sense of rapport – not to mention a sympathy with the piece at hand – that should see her go far as an accompanist.

After the interval, Mackenzie joined forces with The New Professionals – a capable and dynamic ensemble which made an enthusiastic showing in sections from Mauricio Kagel’s epic musical travelogue Die Stücke der Windrose. This journey round the globe, from the perspective of one whose formative years were spent in the Southern Hemisphere, redefines just what a salon orchestra can do (what, indeed, it ‘is’) – whether the eruption of an imagined Central European folk-music in the brief’Osten’, or the much more discursive interaction between European and African cultures in ‘Westen’. Virtuoso playing – not least the all-important percussion – made for an engrossing if unsettling listen.

So, in a rather more direct way, did the new work by Robert Fokkens – a musical evocation of “… the hazardously cattle-infested stretch of the N2 motorway between East London and Umtata in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province”. Its two movements – the first rapidly accumulating energy, then the second a more gradual build-up which is spurred on by the increasingly baleful presence of the ‘Dies irae’ plainchant – is both intricately and colourfully scored, with some exacting writing in the soloist’s upper register that found Mackenzie in commanding form, and was ably directed by Tim Murray (who showed no signs of having stepped in at short notice). Fokkens looked delighted – as well he might.

An evening, then, which only came alive in the second half. Mackenzie is a violinist of no mean ability, but who needs to live a little more dangerously at times if her performances are really to catch fire.

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