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Proms Chamber Music 10 Delius, Holst and Elgar: Jennifer Pike (violin), Natalie Clein (cello), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Jonathan Lemalu (bass–baritone), Tom Poster (piano), Cadogan Hall, London, 29.8.2009 (BBr)

Delius: Cello Sonata (1916)
Holst: Four Songs, op.35 (1916)
Three songs from Six Songs, op.15 (1902/1903)
Elgar: Violin Sonatain E minor, op.82(1918)

Natalie Clein has proven herself in English music with a fine recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto and it’s good that she has now got to grips with the Delius Sonata – a neglected work (what work by Delius isn’t?) written for Beatrice Harrison and never taken up with any enthusiasm by anybody since her première of the work in 1918. True, there have been several recordings of the work, but concert performances? I’ve never heard it live until today. It was worth waiting for.

Clein threw herself into Delius’s hot house emotional world with a passion and delivered a bold and arresting performance, in the outer sections, and of such tenderness in the slower, more dreamy, middle section that one wished to hear her play it again immediately at its conclusion. She was well partnered by Tom Poster but, and I make no apologies for mentioning this problem again, the piano had the lid on full stick and on occasion the cello was inaudible when the pianist is playing fistfuls of notes. Fortunately, these moments were few and far between but they did marr an otherwise perfect interpretation

Holst’s Four Songs for high voice and violin are amongst the most complete works this composer ever created. They are very short, pared down to the minimum in emotion and utterance and are over in a trice. As one can imagine from a piece for voice and violin, with no harmony instrument at work, the violin cannot sustain more than a two note harmony for any length of time, the music is virginal pure – only the real essence of Holst’s thoughts are on the page. This performance, good though it was, was overplayed. The whole simplicity of the composer’s vision was lost, everything was far too loud, and the sense of ecstasy was entirely missing. Nevertheless it was good to hear them live for, like the Delius Sonata, they seldom get an airing.

Likewise the Six, very early, Songs, op.15. These are not typical Holst, he hadn’t yet found his style and they don’t give the singer any real opportunities for interpretation. Jonathan Lemalu belted out the first and last songs in a crude, somewhat vulgar, and identical, way. He has a big instrument but he is not in control of it for he wobbles uncontrollably all over the place and makes, for me, a most unpleasant sound. He also has the habit of dropping the voice into the back of the mouth, at the top of the throat, and this sound is quite disagreeable. Incidentally, the words Holst set as The Sergeant’s Song were also set, much more successfully by Finzi as Rollicum-rorum, the 6th of his wonderful set Earth and Air and Rain, op.15. Lemalu needs to take some time to get his voice fully under control and learn that wobble is an unattractive habit; what is needed is a subtle, and gentle, vibrato, to be used when necessary, and there needs to be much more care and control.

The show ended with Jennifer Pike giving a fine performance of Elgar’s late Violin Sonata. This is not Elgar at his best, and he seems, at times, to simply be going through the motions of composition rather than working hard to create the big piece I am sure he was aiming for. The major problem is that he relies too much on repetition of material through constant sequential movement, but with such passionate advocacy as Pike and Poster displayed today I was almost convinced that this was a greater work than it actually is, or deserves to be.

With my one reservation concerning Lemalu’s performance, this show allowed us to hear some exciting young musicians giving their tremendous talent to the music of their own countrymen. We cannot ask for more than that.

Bob Briggs  

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