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S & H Concert Review

Firsova, Casken, Schnittke, Parkin, Clarke, Tabakova, Langer, Bennett, Hoddinott David Childs (euphonium); Harvey Davies (piano); Evelyn Chang (solo piano). Wednesday, January 7th, 7.30pm, Purcell Room (CC)



I confess to being slightly biased against the thought of euphonium pieces (having been brought up literally round the corner from Besses-o’-th’-Barn Band’s practice rooms), yet Elena Firsova’s wittily titled Euphonisms (2003) resulted in a fascinating experience. David Childs is an expert euphonium player (he won the brass final of the 2000 BBC Young Musician of the Year) and it was for him that Euphonisms was explicitly written (‘euphonisms’ calls attention to the harmonious relationship of solo instrument and piano as well as making play with the instrument’s name). Right from the beginning there was no doubting Childs’ high standard of playing – slurs were clean, the lyrical solo line well-projected. But he can also be agile (a cadenza uses the full range of his instrument and the finale included some quite remarkable playing, here both virtuoso and accurate).

Childs and his excellent pianist Harvey Davis also rounded off the first half with Simon Parkin’s Skunk, a piece that reminded me of David Heath’s Out of the Cool, just speeded up. Plenty of foot-tappery going on among the audience, I don’t doubt. There is lots going on in this piece, but ultimately is it all worth it? There’s a fair amount of compositional doodling around.

Nigel Clarke’s City in the Sea started the second half. Inspired by a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, it began in appropriately subterranean fashion from the solo tuba (and we were treated to impressive fortissimi – or fffs?). Unfortunately the piece was just a string of effects (it is a concentration of a much larger piece – the mind boggles - the reduced version intended for Childs to play in the BBC Young Musicians Final). I remain at a loss as to how music and poem are linked. But I now know that seven minutes can seem an awfully long time.

Alun Hoddinott’s Euphonium Sonata (2003) closed the concert. Again written for Childs, it is easy-on-the-ear. The Andante is rather meandering; the playful final movement Allegro is more impressive, even if the piece as a whole seemed out of context given the other composer’s contributions. Impressive virtuosity again from Childs, who demonstrated how nimble the euphonium can be (even in its lowest registers). His pianist, Harvey Davies, was excellent throughout.

Whatever David Childs’ qualities, it was the young Taiwanese pianist Evelyn Chang who stole the show. A product of the RCM, her musicality shines from every note and she reveals true affinity with the music she plays. Starting with John Casken (a PLG featured composer), she gave us his The Haunted Bough, the result of a commission by Stephen Gutman to write a variation on Rameau’s Le Lardon (the French ‘Le rameau’ means bough, by the way). Nice to see how Chang’s gestures mirrored the gestures of the work without being overly showy. Almost jazzy at times, Chang absorbed the idiom entirely. Perhaps the impression sometimes was that this was Messiaen without the oomph, but it was an impressive event nonetheless.

Schnittke’s 1990 Second Piano Sonata confirmed impressions of Chang’s playing. She melted into this quasi-meandering music. Schnittke’s more unashamedly modernist side suits her well, and it was unapologetically presented, full force. Most impressive, perhaps, was the atmosphere she set up ion the second movement (‘Lent’) and the way she carried the silences. Chang’s finger strength paid dividends in the jazzy finale – a very exciting performance indeed.

More Firsova (Hymn to Spring, Op. 64 of 1993) brought a flurry of (un- Messiaenic) bird song – Chang’s filigree was marvellous (I wrote ‘this girl has TALENT’ in my notes at this point). Dobrinka Tabakova’s Midnight (2003) was an impressive, short piece that suggested layering, and Chang’s hard touch for its toccata-like passages was exactly right. Possibly most fascinating of all, though, was Elena Langer’s Late Autumn Lullaby 1 (2003) with its huge, lonely intervallic spaces. Reminiscent of Feldman’s mesmeric worlds, its final gesture was (presumably intentionally) ambiguous. It stood on the cusp of a ‘completion’ and a ‘question’, and it was difficult to decide which it was. Intriguing.

Ed Bennett’s Staggering (2003) again showed Chang’s assurance. Very dissonant, fiendishly difficult music (only six minutes long), this composer has a manic, obsessive streak that is almost unsettling it is so genuine.

Food for thought all round, then. With so many ‘new’ composers around, plus rarely heard pieces by perhaps more established ones, it is a surprise and delight to report that the major discovery here came in the form of Evelyn Chang. I look forward to more from her.

Colin Clarke









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