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S & H Concert Review

Harrison, Elias, MacMillan Christina Mairi Lawrie (piano). Purcell Room, PLG Series, Wednesdy, January 7th, 2004 (CC)

Nice to come across more of Sadie Harrison’s music. I waxed lyrical, and at length, on her ‘Light Garden Trilogy’ when it was performed last September. The much shorter, although hardly less impressive, Impresa Amorosa (the correct spelling – ‘Impressa amorosa’ appears erroneously elsewhere in the programme booklet) is a set of seven short piano pieces dating from 1996. The title is from the 15th century practice of love tokens exchanged between knights and their loves, the significance of which were known uniquely to the lovers. Consisting of an image and motto, each made no sense without the other. Later this concept came to symbolise the shortcoming of language as a communicative tool. As Harrison puts it, ‘it is at this point that the relationship between the aesthetic of the impresa and the musical Impresa Amorosa begins’.

And a very fertile relationship it is, too. As a generative concept it clearly fired Harrison’s imagination and in turn, Harrison’s score inspired pianist Christina Mairi Lawrie to great things. Lawrie’s advocacy was never in doubt, her wide tonal range complementing Harrison’s often sensuously beautiful textures perfectly. The opening to ‘Falcon/Semper (Always)’ was beautifully projected by Lawrie: the sparse, open sound brought to mind a much deconstructed, recontextualised Cathédrale engloutie. Lawrie fully realised the contrasts in this work, hardening her tone as appropriate, then (memorably) darkening it (especially for one particular passage that came across with all the disturbing emotive force of late Liszt). Melodies were projected well without being forced on the listener, and the more virtuoso passages gave Lawrie few problems.

Harrison’s sensitivity to harmony and the inherent potentialities of any given simultaneity result in some passages of extreme beauty. Just sometimes, though, there was the impression that the musical material wanted to ‘stretch’ itself, to reveal more to the listener about itself yet did not quite get the chance. Nevertheless, this did not disappoint and it is to be hoped reaquaintance will be swift. Do Metier Records, who recorded ‘The Light Garden’, have any plans to set this down? I hope so.

Brian Elias’ 1987 Variations is based, structurally, on Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. As with the Beethoven, Elias’ theme is rugged – yet he does not share Beethoven’s genius. Lawrie presented this piece in the fairest possible light, making some parts dance and showing her astonishing technique in fast, high-register passage-work. But … well, there are several buts. When Elias invokes a bleak soundscape, he suddenly sounds rather impotently non-directional. Further, some gestures sounded like mere space-filling, particularly one which seemed to say, ‘Now we’ll go up the keyboard … and now we’ll go down it again’ (without any real musical/structural point whatsoever). Despite all of Lawrie’s virtuosity, one is left wondering whether all the effort for her to learn this work was worth it. A case of the idea being substantially better than its actual realisation.

No such qualms with James MacMillan’s Piano Sonata of 1985 (he was subsequently to reuse some material from this work in a symphony). The barren first movement, with its obsessive D sharp, and the haunting finale frame a substantial second movement that is highly gestural, but playfully so. Contrast between what might be termed ‘compressed monumental’ stillness and toccata-like outbursts is highly effective.

A memorable recital from a pianist of real talent, particularly for the Harrison and the MacMillan.

Colin Clarke



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