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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Mozart, Haydn: The Hanover Band, Tuesday 26th October 2004 & Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Michael Finnissey, Howells: ‘Room Music’, Thursday 4th November 2004. Both at St John’s Smith Square (ME)

These two concerts, with their original, slightly quirky programming, typify what has become the St John’s style of late: a combination of well known with more obscure music and a parallel mixture of starry and emergent soloists. Sadly the evenings were also typical of the sparse attendance experienced by this venue, unless of course the event is something like the annual ‘Messiah’ when standing room only is the norm. However, the only just half full houses were made up of knowledgeable and very enthusiastic patrons who relished two enticing and well thought out programmes.

The first of these evenings is part of the Hove-based Hanover Band’s 25th Anniversary series, entitled ‘Mozart’s World’ and conducted by the lively, engaging Paul Brough whose brief introductions to the pieces achieved the very rare distinction of being far too short. Mozart’s ‘Prague’ symphony produced the opposite effect, in that the Presto suffered from a bout of ragged ensemble which resulted in a marked feeling that there were too many repeats: however, the delicate Adagio offered some elegant and highly committed playing by a small orchestra which must be very close in style to that which Mozart would have known.

Three Mozart arias followed, all sung with sublimely beautiful tone and remarkable virtuosity by the tenor John Mark Ainsley: Dei più sublime soglio from ‘La Clemenza di Tito’ reflects nobly upon the notion that the greatest joy which stems from the possession of power is the ability to reward virtue, and it is one of the few of Mozart’s arias which really lend themselves to performance out of context – one could hear the influence of Rolfe Johnson in Ainsley’s singing of it, although the phrasing and quality of Italianità were all the singer’s own.

No similar influence was discernible in the formidable Fuor del Mar from ‘Idomeneo’ and in a way this performance was a frustrating one, since despite the view recently expressed to me by another prominent Mozartean that ‘Any young tenor can sing that role’ this is music which only very few can sing with the required combination of breathtaking virtuosity and dramatic authenticity: here we have the only currently active singer known to me who is actually able to reach all the notes and still make lovely sounds whilst always being histrionically convincing, and all one gets to hear of his interpretation of the role is just this one – admittedly superb – section of the work. If one has the chance to hear it ‘live,’ it seems that one’s choice in terms of the work’s hero is between the once-wonderful and the never-to-be-even-passable. It’s about time ENO or Covent Garden cast both these operas around Ainsley, since I’d like to hear all the notes in place just once before I’m eligible for my bus pass. Apparently the rest of the audience felt the same way, since a more than enthusiastic reception was accorded to the performance, and rewarded with an exquisite Dalla sua Pace, its long-breathed lines the most eloquent testament to Mozart’s mastery of the capabilities of the human voice.

The conductor introduced Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony with some remarks about the links, both real and intuitive, between the two composers, setting the scene for a lively, at times almost rumbustious performance which demonstrated conclusively that it is not just the ‘surprise’ which makes this work so popular, but its enduring vigour and charm.

‘Room-Music’ is the name given to a group of musicians ‘resident at St John’s’ whose aim is to explore chamber music in a flexible and innovative form. The ensemble is led by the pianist Stephen Coombs, and on this occasion he had put together an intriguing programme of English music under the title ‘War and Peace’ featuring one contemporary piece and three works from the early part of the twentieth century. Ireland’s Piano Trio No. 2 was composed in 1917 and is full of the contrast between the savagery of war and the sweetness of life – it was played with elegance, as was Howells’ Piano Quartet Op 21 which ended the ‘official’ programme: the latter is one of those works which one feels one ought to like more, but it somehow still has limited interest save for the fine piano solo which introduces the second movement, and the exhilarating finale.

The two central works were both vocal ones, one well known and the other new to me. Michael Finnissey’s ‘Silver Morning’ sets poems by Housman, who, according to the composer, has been taken as a sort of advertisement for ‘ye olde England’ – whatever that means. Nostalgia is certainly Housman’s forte and it may be part of this work’s equivocal success that it seeks to debunk some of that quality whilst still celebrating it – not an easy thing to do, especially with the chosen poems. ‘In my own shire’ is one of the less felicitous pieces from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ with only occasional striking phrases such as ‘The beautiful and death-struck year’ amidst much borrowing from Blake’s ‘London’ – Finnissey sets it with appropriate lyricism, providing ornate moments for the singer whilst never quite achieving that sense of warm companionship with the voice which is Vaughan Williams’ special skill. The framing lines from ‘Last Poems’ were more successful, with the final stanza’s high, ethereal vocal lines at times recalling Mahler, especially at ‘See, in mid Heaven the sun is mounted.’ John Mark Ainsley gave the work everything he had, which is a great deal.

‘On Wenlock Edge’ is one of those works which sounds fresh no matter how often one hears it: on this occasion it was taken at quite a fast pace, with the violins in particular going for sharpness rather than elegance, and the piano for drama. Vocally, Ainsley’s interpretation showed that he is not stuck in one groove of his own making, in that although his own recording (with the Nash Ensemble, on Hyperion) could not be bettered, his singing here emphasized quite different aspects of the work, sounding less lyrical, more daring. ‘From far, from eve and morning’ can drift into vagueness, but he kept it pointed, whilst giving a perfect legato line at ‘How shall I help you, say’ and the equally mellifluous ‘Bredon Hill’ was sung with exact attention to both words and music – this is taxing material, the voice relentlessly exposed at times, and it was sung here with great skill: if Ainsley does not quite float those magical first two lines in the manner of Wilfred Brown, he gives you much more of the emotional release inherent in such lines as ‘Oh noisy bells, be dumb.’

The evening was rounded off down in the Crypt Restaurant, with a couple of Ivor Novello songs, played by Stephen Coombs with great relish and sung by Ainsley with as much fervour as though they were Verdi, but absolutely appropriate in tone and style – what a treat to hear ‘We’ll gather Lilacs’ sung like this! There are two further concerts in the series, featuring Susan Gritton in January and Raphael Wallfisch in March – both enticing programmes again, so highly recommended.

Melanie Eskenazi

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