Yasmin Rowe & Sally Wigan (piano)
Harry Cameron-Penny (clarinet) & Jonathan Musgrave (piano)
Olga Stezhko (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 11 January, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room
The John McCabe masterclass that filled the early-evening slot proved an enlightening fifty minutes’ worth. In listening to and then surveying two young pianists’ performances of his music, McCabe’s gentlemanly comments – a mix of the authoritative composer and the practical performer (he is himself a fine concert pianist of his and others’ music) – made for very interesting remarks and dialogue. Sally Wigan played McCabe’s Variations (1963) and Yasmin Rowe tackled his Gaudi (Study No.3; 1970), compact yet substantial pieces. Both pianists gave dedicated performances, much appreciated by the composer. The chords and motifs heard at the outset of Variations act as a springboard for music that pulsates and enquires. Wigan’s account seemed first-class, and was given a thumbs-up by McCabe who made points about rubato and dynamics, which the young pianist demonstrably took on board.
Gaudi is striking in its hard-hitting gestures and scurrying figuration; music that pounds and also searches outer limits, and – in keeping with Gaudi’s prowess as an architect – seems to build; quite an uncompromising piece. Yasmin Rowe was unfazed by its demands and also produced some ravishing glissandos. Again full of praise for what he had heard, the composer was mostly concerned here with tempo and tempo-relationships and that all of the music’s complexity should be sounded. No doubt both pianists benefitted from McCabe’s observations. Certainly this listener came away with an interpretative perspective wider than those specifically related to these pieces.
The main concert began with music for clarinet and piano. Harry Cameron-Penny and Jonathan Musgrave were both pristine in their performances, albeit a little earnest (neither musician gave much away in body language, but the ears were well rewarded), if at times misjudging the dry and immediate acoustic by playing too loudly, the clarinet emerging as a little harsh at times and the piano tending towards dominance. Performances were fluent though and Cameron-Penny’s holding onto silence at the end of quiet-ending movements is to be applauded. Not literally of course if the work hasn’t finished! Cameron-Penny conjured a range of colours and dynamics in Paul Patterson’s Conversations (1974), terseness and pathos vying for attention, the finale something of a ‘jam session’. Much sensitivity and flights of fancy were on offer for Richard Rodney Bennett’s Ballad in memory of Shirley Horn (2005), the composer managing to suggest Finzi and Gershwin without aping either. At the end of the evening the duo returned for Colin Matthews’s Three Studies (1989), arrangements of his cello Enigmas, sinewy and quicksilver, the second Study beginning on the barest thread of sound, and the last employing the pungent timbres of a bass clarinet, Cameron-Penny now seated. Finally, another triptych, John McCabe’s Three Pieces (1964), launched by another sliver of sound, deeply reflective music that rages at its climax and then smiles delightfully in the attractive dance-patterns of the second Piece. The contrasts of the finale came to a lively conclusion.
Minsk-born Olga Stezhko’s contributions included Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.4 (From Old Notebooks; 1917), music loaded with sentiment and closely associated with Sviatoslav Richter. Stezhko played with poise and attitude, if also miscalculating the acoustic somewhat in terms of loudness and, with it, the creation of hard tone. Maybe the middle movement could have avoided a sense of slow relentlessness. Nevertheless Stezhko made a strong case for the work’s inimitability; and the skittishness of the finale – anticipating Poulenc, Prokofiev a Russian soon to be in Paris – was full of brio, its sequence of chords and florid decoration brought off with distinction. John McCabe was this concert’s “Frontline Composer” and his “Frontline Choice” was Emily Howard. Her Sky and Water (2005), premiered and recorded by McCabe (see link below), begins with a grand gesture, its epigrams building to a huge climax. Stezhko also played McCabe’s Evening Harmonies (2000), with a titular and expressive leaning to Liszt: mysterious and scented at the opening, suggestive of fireflies and thus Bartók’s ‘night music’, this is invention that crackles in the dark. Stezhko retained intensity until the evaporating coda. Outside of the earlier masterclass, one wondered what the composer might have observed to the interpreter. One thing is for sure: all three McCabe piano pieces heard on this occasion are of the utmost distinction.
- PLG Young Artists New Year Series, 9-13 January 2012, Purcell Room, at 6.15 and 7.45
- Park Lane Group
- Southbank Centre
- John McCabe CD