Park Lane Group Young Artists Concerts
6-10 January (BN’s Report)

The annual week-long Park Lane Group celebration of Young Artists – Bill Newman reports

Reviewed by: Bill Newman

Reviewed: 10 January, 2003
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Beforehand, I was amused to read a Peter Stadlen Telegraph crit from 1964 concerning a performance of Poulenc’s Sonata for Horn, Trumpet and Trombone as “something way beyond a joke.” The high standard of young performers in the present series will never have to suffer such critical depredation. Indeed, my admired colleague Christopher Raeburn who had travelled up especially from Ivanhoe in Tring was full of praises: “I have this conscious duty to support these wonderful youngsters!”

Scottish-born cellist Robin Michael studied under David Strange and Colin Carr at the Royal Academy. Pianist Sarah Nicolls, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is a Chetham’s lass, beginning with Piers Lane at the RAM and finishing off at Guildhall with Paul Roberts and Andrew Ball. Both are strongly committed to performing new works.

Roger Redgate’s Study for A Triptych has the piano setting the pace with the cello acting as descant partner. A serial work, vigorous and clean-cut throughout, listeners were treated to col legno and pizzicato displays until the solo cellist had the stage to himself during the closing section.

The Russian Elena Firsova is well known in the instrumental field, especially for performer commissions. Stephen Isserlis wanted The Night Demons (1993) for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which was influenced by two of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantastic stories. Here, the writing is more open – arpeggio passages with high-extended harmonics permeating the upper register with added trills. Lower down, decorative pizzicati provide a rhythmic basis. A cantabile second subject leads to a dieaway, the pianist reaching over to pluck various strings while the cellist persuasively adds two final pizzicatos at the close.

Following was the American nonagenarian Elliott Carter’s Figment. Michael amused his audience by adding to his written programme note a story relating to Yo-Yo Ma, the recipient of Carter’s Cello Concerto, with which this tiny piece compares. Apparently Fred Sherry (who gave the UK premiere of the concerto) had put finishing touches to the score before handing it over to his illustrious colleague. No such preparatory nonsense applies to Figment with its strong, communicative ideas set in a concise architectural span. I enjoyed the rhetorical contrasts between the beginning and the high range of tessitura.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s music defeats me somewhat, and despite the valiant efforts of Siegfried Palm in connection with the pieces for cello, Intercommunicazione(1967) left me cold. Bare, two-part chords are balanced with non-vibrato clashes in the piano. Most of the time the solo pianist performs in a discrete manner echoing the cello harmonics, but the loud, strident ending made no sense to me whatsoever.

American Morton Feldman eventually called it a day, concluding that he “lacked the sense of clarity to go on.” This, despite his considerable influence on the 50s’ trends in serious music-making, along with other half-crazy, half-genius luminaries like Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and the immortal John Cage. Durations II (1960-1, one of five pieces with that title) is extra-expressive in a terrestrial way. This is music of the stratosphere, like floating clouds widespread through ever-changing passages of time.

Pianist Jane Ford reached the finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year three times, studying at Birmingham University and Guildhall School of Music. After further studies with Heather Slade-Lipkin and Christopher Elton, she obtained second prize in the London International Piano Competition.

Janet Owen Thomas’s Preludes Book 1 impressed me enormously. These strongly etched, pictorial and atmospheric keyboard miniatures stem back to the serious writings of composers like Cyril Scott at his most advanced, and John Foulds with his penchant for being diverse in his aims, multi-coloured in harmonisation and unexpectedly daring when least expected. Piers Hellawell’s Airs, Waters and Floating Islands is more obviously extrovert in its outlandish rhythms and blatant colourings, with a power, scope and expressive range suited to the brilliance of pianist Susan Tomes, who performed it at Cambridge in 1996. I was reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s syncopation and Aaron Copland’s (viz. Piano Fantasy) profuse, sometimes obtuse fusions of elongated tonal structures.

Bass-baritone Jérémie Lesage first sang at the Music School of the Pays de le Loire in France. Now he is with David Pollard at the Guildhall, London, having participated in Masterclasses and obtained various coaching experiences. In 2001 he was presented with the PRS Foundation Award. Laetitia Fédérici, his pianist partner, studied at the Conservatoire of Cergy-Pontoise, continuing with the Russian virtuoso Alexander Ardakov at Trinity College.

The baritone/piano contributions could not have made a finer impact than with Alison Bauld’s Where Should Othello Go? – a stirring piece of theatre-drama comparable with, say, the best that Samuel Barber had previously written as part of his operas Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra. Alison’s uncle was the tenor Kenneth Neate, and her piece was written in his memory. Martial chords and sliding harmonic key changes in the pictorial piano part serve as an admirable foil to the declamatory text. Diana Burrell’s Tachograph – a devise that measures speed and time-taken, most used by heavy-goods vehicle drivers – combines images and effects in a system of numbering that gauge the responses of different velocities. These are orated by the singer, the pianist providing motivic support to match the various sequences of speech form. Ingenious, maybe, in Burrell’s visionary settings of heightened, nature-like fantasies.

I need to brush up further on the poetry of W.B. Yeats.Jonathan Harvey’s Four Songs of Yeats is a cycle that “develops with great lyricism and each song shows a textural versatility in the piano part” (I quote from the programme note). The words convey powers of description that command the subject matter to come alive and confront the listener. I found myself making notes in the margin like ’repeated rhythmic motives both hesitant and erratic’ (piano) … ’Britten-like in piano part, suggesting the nocturnal aspect of heaven in all its expansiveness’, and ’Like a colossus the struggle begins and ends at midnight.’ The singer has to stand very still, letting his facial expressions and vocal artistry ’describe’ the action.

Mauricio Kagel’s Brrrrr….is 41 pieces beginning with the letter R. Thankfully we were only treated to four! The words are by various poets. The bizarre settings start with the singer (attempting to cope with English vowels, and not quite succeeding) in the audience wearing a cloth cap and moving from left to right … tearing to the edge of the platform where he seats himself … afterwards moving on to the stage for the two final numbers. Extraneous noises are provided by the page-turner suddenly screaming some message slogan, and the electronic noise of a railway train in motion. A few polite giggles came via the audience.

Returning to solo piano, Harrison Birtwistle’s Ostinato with Melody – a short piece written for Pierre Boulez’s 75th birthday is best forgotten. Erik Satie was much better at this kind of trivia. Geoffrey Poole’s evolving I Ching Cycle comes from the world’s oldest Book of Changes. The composer has worked abroad (notably Kenya) and been involved in various music festivals at home. It sounded as if modelled on Louis Moreau Gottschalk with certain vaudeville effects added for good luck!

Melbourne-born Louisa Breen graduated with Bachelor of Music Honours, coming to England to complete her Master’s Degree. She brought the late Keith Humble’s Bagatelle’s. The Australian composer started playing jazz piano while at school, and further studies took him to London and Paris where he attended Cortot’s class and studied composition with René Leibowitz. In the case of bagatelles one thinks immediately of Beethoven, but Humble’s are more inspired by Liszt and Bartók. No.6 has allegiances to the great Duke Ellington. The writing is largely atonal, sometimes serial.

It should also be remembered that Thomas Adès is a fine pianist. In Darknesse Visible, Adès employs overlapping phrases and low bass notes to bring out the poignancy of the Dowland original. It requires and received careful handling by tonight’s pianist to maintain correct pacing and dynamics. Then more from Geoffrey Poole, simple and lyrical in style, then phrases gathering strength and fullness as they progress. Jonathan Harvey’s Four Images after Yeats concerns fragments from the poems, although the final number is considerably extended. One has a partial picture of Olivier Messiaen from the general timbre and the quiet melody in sevenths. The second is a description of moon symbolism. A 28-phrase palindrome (the musical material returning to source) pictures its waxing and waning and its blossoming progress towards Nature in all its glory. The spun phrasing and breakdown into intricate particles was especially beautiful. The ultimate goal is the attainment of God in all His Glory. The widely spread, compelling music of Yeat’s definition of mystical meaning, namely the perfection of the soul following death and the ultimate desire to still have sexual communion. The extended final part in an ever-increasing roundabout of strife and turmoil. I object to regurgitating quotes from Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Liszt, Scriabin and Schoenberg. Presumably Harvey heard these for their necessary peaceful, plaintive and erotic qualities, but the thread of continuity – involved and diffuse as it stands – is disrupted and cheapened by their inclusion.

The Zephyr Ensemble of London is a fusion of nationalities formed in 1997 from RAM and RCM candidates. Philip Cashian’s amid the bleached stars and suns is rooted in Stravinsky. The instrumental placement is unusual with flute doubling on alto and bass flute. On the right are the other winds. The antiphonal blend suggests one of these biblical paintings, with the French horn harmonies occurring at isolated instances from behind closed doors. Harrison Birtwistle’s Refrains and Choruses is his acknowledged first piece, written literally from the top of his head without movement separations or any obvious repetition. The moulded structures, overlapping dissonance and caustic humour are important signposts and an aid in the build-up of tension and overall continuity.

Xuefei Yang, solo guitarist, was born in Beijing in 1977; she started playing aged 7. At the RAM she became a pupil of Michael Lewin and won leading prizes including a recital Diploma and the Principal’s Prize at the RAM – the highest award of its kind. Xiaoyong Chen’s Static and Rotation(1997) is a beautiful piece exploring a range of tonal palettes couched in an oriental setting. The performer has to ’feel’ for the right touch and vibrations of each note. Chen, a Ligeti pupil, has mastered many Chinese instruments. Robert Saxton’s Night Dance visualises an old man sitting in a doorway at dusk. He plays his guitar, first plucking the lowest string, wanting to search for what he wants to perform. The music gains speed, travelling upwards to higher strings before breaking into a dance. This was magnificently felt by our gifted soloist, with exactly the right pulse and quality of silence where rest-markings occur.

Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal is one of those truly magical pieces for solo guitar, the variations occurring before the actual statement of Dowland’s theme. The impregnated atmosphere, redolent of a be-stilled night with stars gleaming overhead, laid a spell over the audience through Yang’s marvellous soft playing. Timothy Walker’s Equipoise inhabits delicacy and control as the perfect antidote to visionary stillness. This light-hearted, catchy work manages to establish independence of material without harming the structure. The soloist helped the composer by her perfect interrelation of right/left-hand co-ordinated rhythmic/structural balance and mastery. The composer admits this was written without knowledge of the instrument, yet measures to perfection a hot, sultry atmosphere where Spanish dancing and audience conviviality are at their authentic best.

The two final items returned us to the Zephyr wind quintet and, first, Ben Foskett’s Wind Quintet. Having studied with Edwin Roxburgh, Foskett is sitting for his Master’s Degree at the RAM with Simon Bainbridge. I was reminded of Paul Klee’s “Twittering Machine” in Gunther Schuller’s instrumental guise; then textures become increasingly complex until solo horn takes centre-stage. Huw Watkins’s Quintet was especially composed for this PLG concert and is in four sections. A suggestive waltz makes its appearance, a two-note motto reminded me of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ’Le Coq d’Or’, and the finale becomes jazzed up in syncopated fashion. Splendid performances.

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