Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series – 4

Contemporary music played by Park Lane Group Young Artists

Elena Vorotko (piano)

Triptych [Rachel Baldock (oboe), Matthew Orange (bassoon) & Bethany Phillips (piano)]

Sally Pryce (harp)

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 12 January, 2006
Venue: Purcell Room, London

Rarely do you see a performer as genuinely wholeheartedly engrossed in contemporary music as pianist Elena Vorotko. From the moment the young Russian musician carefully placed the opening notes of Dutilleux’s Trois Préludes with a dignified, reserved weight, one sensed that her conviction in her chosen music was total. Her choice of programme, indeed, was emotionally convincing, intelligent, and yet obviously personal as well. Each item related fascinatingly to those around it, and the overall recital formed a distilled miniature voyage of discovery.

That Vorotko played from the depths of her soul was without doubt. The Dutilleux was considered and concise, Vorotko finding obvious fascination in the complex structures. Her range of tonal colour was enormous, as were the intense swings in emotional content – achieved through sheer technical virtuosity and an iron grip on dynamics and phrasing.

Brian Elias’s Variations (49 of them) provided much fertile material for this type of playing, and Vorotko appeared to be even more comfortable with the constant contrasts afforded her. Strangely, given this, the only problematic area appeared to be that of rhythm, with moments of near hesitation occasionally apparent.

Vorotko concluded with Three Etudes, by Artem Vassiliev, incredibly well suited to Vorotko’s style and approach – not surprising given that the work was written for her, after two years of conversations about piano technique. (The fact that Vassiliev is in fact married to Vorotko probably also helped!) Vorotko’s intellectual interest in this music flourished, and the compilation of textures, melodic experimentation and Vassiliev’s own beguiling compositional style was involving.

In Vorotko, the Park Lane Group has found a performer both immensely technically capable and, more importantly, a musician capable of bringing both total emotional conviction and intelligence to the concert platform.

Given the aims of the Park Lane group in promoting many young musicians, it is unavoidable that, in the interests of providing as much opportunity as possible to all, some concerts will be programmed in practical, rather than musical, ways. This appeared to be the case with the second recital, with what was essentially a solo harp recital sandwiched rather uncomfortably in the middle of appearances by Triptych. This made for an incongruous, disjointed experience. But it was more than compensated for by the quality of the performances.

Triptych play as a musical entity – not once did the musicians’ perfect ensemble and timing slip as they skilfully navigated the improvisation-like texture of Michael Finnissy’s Keroiylu, and the ritardando sections of Conlon Nancarrow’s almost mechanistic Trio No.2. This latter work was a delight from a composer whose main body of work is for player-piano, with a melody passed seemingly at random between the instruments, and a wonderfully witty ending.

An obvious hazard of the musical unity Triptych presented is that of individual instrumentalists being under-appreciated. Thankfully, however, there was ample opportunity to focus on each of the highly gifted musicians. Phillip Neil Martin’s Constellations (2000) afforded Bethany Phillips a chance to bring her virtuoso pianism to the fore with a zest and confident brilliance that forged the frame of this richly woven piece. Matthew Orange’s sensitively sonorous bassoon-playing also flourished against this texture, wonderfully offset later by his overtly enjoyed playful and witty interpretation of Poulenc’s gorgeous Trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, allowing every subtle nuance to be squeezed from the music. Oboist Rachel Baldock’s rich and highly developed tone leant Kenneth Hesketh’s intriguing Three pieces in the shape of a shoe (premiered here to a PLG commission) a beguiling quality, with the opening of the third piece only describable as an “I’ll have what she’s having” moment.

The range of harpist Sally Pryce’s programme gave the opportunity to witness the breadth of her truly astonishing abilities. Michael Zev Gordon’s Of Here and Elsewhere proved an exercise in economy of means, with the shortest movement just fifteen seconds long, yet imbued with a genuine beauty by Pryce. This same ability to infuse her playing with rich and deep emotion gave Elizabeth Maconchy’s superbly structured Morning, Noon and Night not just a programmatic meaning, but also a strong emotional vector.

The highlight of the programme was, without a doubt, the UK premiere of Heinz Holliger’s recent Partita (II), composed in 2004. The opening toccata alone proved Pryce’s technical abilities above and beyond the call of duty. I have always tended to regard the harp as being blessed with the same playing difficulties as the piano, but without the assistance of a keyboard. Pryce’s playing in this movement took harp technique not just to a new level, but out for lunch in a posh restaurant. In terms of innovation, Holliger stopped at nothing. Rapid combinations of rhythmic runs, harmonics and percussive effects using the body of the harp mingled with evocative pseudo-Flamenco passages. Pryce equipped herself with two metal bars at one point, achieved glissandi on single strings, and even re-tuned the instrument. For the central movement, she managed to top even this, producing a bow, and using it to play a melody while accompanying herself with the other hand – a feat of co-ordination to leave the most proficient occupational therapist feeling ashamed. Never, though, was this a circus act – at all times Pryce’s focus was on the music.

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