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Review: 7 October 2017

We don’t hear Nicola Grunberg enough in piano duets – she’s usually part of a violin/piano duo - but with Judith Maddison she’s paired up to one with distinction. This is the second time I’ve heard her recently in this combo. The repertoire’s adventurous too (it ought to be remembered that Grunberg gave the first outside-Soviet Union performance of Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata with her husband, the late Cecil Aronowitz).

They started with two of Barber’s Souvenirs Op.20, acid chic tunefulness edging to post-war blues in both the Waltz and Pas de deux. It’d be good to hear the whole Suite. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Suite for Skip and Sadie is recognizably from the same aesthetic, if not quite as well-known. It’s an attractive children’s piece, a Good Morning and Good Night framing the characterful Sadie’s Waltz and Skip’s Dance. These like so much of Bennett’s output are grateful, teasingly memorable, and deliberately generic. They’re an attractive addition to the sub-genre of works for children in this medium. Grunberg and Maddison are right on top of this medium,: light, poised, crisp and full of élan.

The Mozart Violin Sonata in B Flat K.378 brings Grunberg back with her regular violin partner, Cynthia Eraut. This work’s both substantial and silvery. It’s a work that settles into B flat brilliance with its Allegro moderato, strong and quite big-boned. The Andantino sostenuto e cantabile slips by with a signing nagging inwardness I felt I’d like to hear again. The Allegro Rondo’s another piece of melodic tugging, edging sideways to small surprises, and vivid. Nicely projected, this duo never over-emphasize their performances.

After he interval we enjoyed a rarity: Schumann’s Op.135 – thus very late – Poems of Mary Stuart. These five works, sung by Jane Money with Richard Haslam at the piano, are beguiling, inward-looking pieces befitting their subject. The five poems based on actual pieces by Mary but refracted through all sorts of Romantic creations, take us through a Schiller’s Eye view, including the middle work addressed to Queen Elizabeth 1. The last two take a lingering farewell from the world. She had begun with marriage and hope. Money’s mezzo voice does pierce through these obliquities, and we’re lucky to have such fine works rendered at all. Haslam’s pianism as ever perfectly supported.

Hugh O’Neal’s Schubert Piano Sonata in A minor D.845 is a tremendous arc of a work veering early to desolation. The memorable Moderato that O’Neal pitches without pushing to any kind of opening allegro speed moves to the Andante poco molto, an interrogation of loneliness. O’Neal enjoys the whole Scherzo marked Allegro vivace moving to a slower Trio as you’d expect. The energy’s carried through the equally Allegro Vivace Rondo finale. With O’Neal, perfectly attuned to this fragile world of secure sorrow and evanescent joys, you do feel as if he’s the ideal guide. Schubert’s acute and sometimes volatile sensibility is movingly conveyed.

Another fine concert of core and rarity, a perfect balance. It’s good we can now hear them on the site.

Simon Jenner


Review: SMC 9th September 2017, BUC

The inaugural Sussex Musicians concert opened and ended with spectacular strength, and entertained all through.

Bax’s 1921 Viola Sonata is one of the greatest written for this combination. The finest is one from 1919, Rebecca Clarke’s, and Britten’s Lachrimaye from 1950 is the other best known. Add to that Shostakovich’s 1975 valediction (it’s striking how many composers end their lives writing or orchestrating viola works: Bartok and Britten too), with the best two or three of Hindemith’s and you have the core repertoire.

Oddly, this is the only work of that list inspired by Lionel Tertis, and Bax wrote a Concerto (called Fantasy) fro him in 1919, a Legend in 1929, which we heard a couple of years ago from this team; and a Second Sonata from 1934 got turned into his masterly Sixth Symphony. Perhaps looking at the oddity of the first two movements there, someone might steal it back?

The Bax has enormous power and like the Clarke encloses a scherzo in the middle, a format Walton later followed in his concertos.

Beatrice Sales opened out more and more in her playing, both singing and gritty where required. Kevin Allen powered support through Bax’s tricky piano part, written fro himself, someone who could sight-read anything. The opening rises in broken Celtic-sounding reminiscence but is a world away from Bax’s Irish adoption. It’s angular, modern and rises on tremendous perorations, speeding to Allegro then fading in a speaking tone of infinite regret. The diablerie of the Scherzo is strutting, angry, ferociously questing with a plangent middle trio section. The finale’s of course return: Molto lento. This too is shot through with sudden bursts and only settles resignedly. Sales and Allen know what they’re about as a duo, and brought this aching, angular masterwork of beauty, humour and desolation.

Sue Mileham with her inimitable wit and entertaining brio was able to break the spell after a brief pause with Karen Rash on flute and Nicola Grunberg on piano. Its an enticing combination. Arne’s The morning is a twittering confection, full of trills and tessituras, everyone reaching for a lark rise to top notes.

Saint-Saens’ ‘Une flute invisible’ similarly delights in the flute, as this composer always does, Rash weaving a proto-impressionistic haze around Mileham’s voice.

Henry Bishop’s ‘Lo! Here the Gentle Lark’ also weaves in larks, using Shakespeare’s ords as Mileham too points out is rather manically rising. These are rare works, rarely performed. Mileham’s often known for entertaining and she does that here, but in the music she charts unfamiliar territory for herself and most listeners.

Finally John Bruzon rendered us first a transcription by Alfred Cortot: it’s the second movement of Brandenburg Fifth Concerto in F minor. A remarkable sustained meditation in Bruzon’s hands, and retaining a cantilena feel as it sings suspended.

Bruzon’s virtuosity emerged wholly in the service of Liszt, his 1849 ‘Funérailles’ an extraordinary hybrid between a march and lament commemorating friends killed in the 1848 Hungarian uprising against the Hapsburgs. The tread of simple chords across the keyboard concatenates gradually into a frenzy, a protest, and a sad and angry consolation as the late great poet Geoffrey Hill put it. Bruzon gave an electrifying performance, terracing the gradual sonic wedge as it swayed across the keyboard, singing tone raised with the tempo, into an antiphonal carillon of rage. Muriel Hart, who’s been attending Sussex Musicians since 1941, said she couldn’t recall a finer piano performance in the last few years anywhere. I’m not sure I can either.

Simon Jenner