Oliver Coates & Danny Driver at Wigmore Hall [Benjamin Britten premiere]

Suckling
Three Venus Haikus [World premiere]
Beethoven
Sonata in C for Piano and Cello, Op.102/1
Goves
the vermilion border [for cello and electronics]
Britten
Sonata in A for Cello and Piano [World premiere]
Rachmaninoff
Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op.19

Oliver Coates (cello) & Danny Driver (piano)


Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 8 March, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

On paper, this eclectic programme would appear to stretch an audience’s powers of concentration to the limit, to say nothing of the artists’ abilities. Appearances can be deceptive, and one’s natural curiosity in the new and unusual was not always met on this occasion with music of worthwhile interest. The two most recent works came across as little more than manifestations of metropolitan fashion – as in the collective death-wish of those who either lack the ability, or shy away from, a desire to communicate through music such positive views of the world as they possess.

Thus, the Three Venus Haikus (why ‘Venus’?), apparently suggested by, as Martin Suckling explained, “the poetry of George Bruce, the last poet of the Scottish Literary Renaissance, who would have been 100 this year”, were predictably epigrammatic to a fault, as one might expect from three examples of a form containing no more than seventeen syllables in each poem. At least, the music was all over in little more than five minutes, but not before one wondered, for example, why the cello’s obsessive ostinato in the fast central piece led nowhere.

Larry Goves, the title of his work being lower-cased, explained that the vermilion border “is where the soft pink of the lips in the corner of the mouth meet the skin of the cheek”, further interpreting the meaning of the music as perhaps arising from a dental surgeon who badly burnt Goves’s vermilion border with a faulty drill. Well, if Goves cannot explain how the impetus for his work arose, it is not for us to guess, but to judge by the resultant sounds; his reaction to such an accident was depicted at length in a work that might well have been inspired by a desire to communicate a personal spasmodic recoil from an alarming experience.

It was certainly a mistake, in terms of programming, to include these two insignificant works alongside three sonatas by great composers; in the event, our interest in hearing for the first time a work by the 12-year-old Benjamin Britten needed no indulgences. Oliver Coates’s programme-note erroneously stated that Britten was 13 when this Sonata was written, but as he was born in November 1913, and the piece is dated April 1926, he was then seven months short of his 13th-birthday.

Despite Britten’s youth, this proved to be a remarkably assured composition of no little interest – and not necessarily because of the great composer he was to become. What is remarkable about the work is that Britten at all times knew exactly what he was doing – and why. It is shot through with those elements of youthful genius (not too strong a phrase) – such as subtle enharmonic changes, an admirable tendency (never carried to excess) of implying the supertonic, a strong structural sense and other elements of sheer natural compositional inventiveness – characteristics which can never be taught but which exist within the creative consciousness of all true composers. It was salutary to consider that Goves and Suckling are both more than twice Britten’s age when his Sonata was written, but – on the evidence of their works in this programme – they simply haven’t got it. I trust that the Sonata will soon be recorded – it could well become an adjunct to the repertoire, one of the few works from Britten’s juvenilia that is worth hearing occasionally.

Beethoven’s C major Sonata received a very good performance from these two gifted artists – the opening phrase being beautifully shaped – and although the Sonata by Rachmaninov demands a virtuoso pianist, which Danny Driver certainly is, in terms of tone he tended to overpower his partner to the extent that one wondered if the piano ought not to have been on half-stick for this emotionally powerful masterpiece.

Coates’s written notes for this work were also erroneous: the Sonata was first performed at the end of 1901, not in 1902, and it is not true that “meetings with Dr Nikolay Dahl reinvigorated his [Rachmaninov’s] love for music and art” following the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony under Glazunov in 1897. For the better part of those three succeeding years, Rachmaninov was a music director of Marmontov’s Russian Opera Company, having to shelve his compositional programme in the light of his operatic conducting, a short illness, an orchestral conducting tour and making piano-duet versions of his First Symphony, as well as one of Glazunov’s Sixth, for publication. All of this activity demonstrates that Rachmaninov’s “love for music and art” was unimpaired during those years. Dr Dahl reinvigorated Rachmaninov’s compositional inclinations, not his “love for music”.

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