Thursday, 27 January 2011

Josephine Pickering and David Lee in duet at Glenorchy 19th January

Many hands make light work
Josephine Pickering and David Lee
rehearsing on the Venables grand paino
at Glenorchy URC Exmouth
Apologies for the delay in reporting on this lovely lunchtime concert, which actually took place last week on Wednesday 19th January.  I blame influenza.  Also there was no camera at the concert, which was a pity because Josphine and David were in immaculate evening dress for the performance.  The picture on the left was taken this week when they were dressed rather more casually!
Josephine is not only a pianist but also a composer and recently played a selection of her compositions in her concert with Rosemary and Phil Henry (soprano and cor anglais) on 1st December.  David is also an organist and played a selection of pieces on the piano and organ alternately on 3rd November.  (Full details are available on earlier posts on this site.)
The auditorium was filled to capacity to hear these two great pianists play together.
They started straight in with two lively dances by British early twentieth century comic opera writer Edward German (actually Welsh, born in Shropshire, and christened German Edward Jones.) Both were written as incidental music to Anthony Hope's play 'English Nell' ('Nell Gwynn') first performed in 1900.  The 'Pastoral Dance' opened very delicately with Josephine playing the treble keys with one hand.  David brought in a gentle bass as Josephine developed the lively melody.  The 'Country Dance' was very muscular and reminiscent of the outdoor country life.  The two players were in perfect balance as the volume built up.  The treble tune became faster and faster with sweet tinkling semi-quavers in the left hand for Josephine.  Just as it seemed the piece couldn't get any more energetic it came to a crashing close.
The main feature of the programme was Franz Schubert's Allegro in A minor Opus 144 (D947), also known as 'Lebensstürme' ('Storms of Life').  Schubert died at the age of only 31 in November 1829.  'Lebensstürme' was composed shortly before his death in May of the same year.  (The published version may not be complete.)  Although he died of typhoid fever he was already very ill by the summer of 1828 with symptoms of poisoning with mercury, which was commonly used to try to treat syphilis.  Franz would have been very aware that his life was soon to come to a premature end.  This is very evident in the music.
The underlying recurring theme is very simple, as Josephine demonstrated before they started, but certainly not easy to pick out.  The page they were playing from was black with semi-quavers and the storm broke immediately with the opening notes.  A barrage of staccato chords was followed, after a pregnant pause, by a disconcertingly gentle legato, only to be succeeded by more violent chords.  The full effect required perfect synchronisation between the two players, and balance between the treble and bass.  Body movements had to be coordinated as well.  David controlled the pedal so, in order for Josephine to reach the bass keys, they both had to lean to the left together - a perfect piece of choreography!  Sometimes David provided an accompaniment in the form of soft bass chords, sometimes he took the melody.  Sometimes the melody was picked out in chords jumping between bass and treble - perfectly timed by both players.  Best of all was when the two players had to negotiate the use of the same set of keys, a perfect display of friendly (and well-rehearsed) cooperation.  What appeared to be the build-up to a finale gave way to a surprisingly gentle section where Josephine performed a series of light and airy runs in the treble.  The real final crescendo, when it came, was sudden and strident.  The build-up and final angry chords were delivered with perfect timing, and all the emotion Schubert intended.  A brilliant but very disturbing performance!
 Audience members might have been forgiven for thinking that the second half would start with the music of Modeste Mussorgsky.  Actually the first two dances were by the less well-known Moritz Moszkowski, a Prussian composer born in Breslau, in Silesia, in 1854.  At the end of the nineteenth century he moved permantly to Paris where he died in 1925 reduced to poverty by the privations of the Great War.  Moszkowski's Opus 23, 'Aus aller Herren Länder' ('From Foreign Parts' - literally 'In All Countries') was composed in happier times in 1879, when Moritz was only 25.  It features six dances representing six countries: Russia, Germany, Spain, Poland, Italy and Hungary.  David and Josephine swapped places at the piano and gave us dances number three and five, Spain and Italy.  David had a fast and joyful melody reminiscent of a barrel organ (or barrel piano I should say).  The four hands were used fully, allowing much more intricacy than one person could achieve.  The melody drove on, building quickly, and just as suddenly finished.  Italy was a more jerky composition, again making clever use of the four hands.  At some points Josephine played alternating chords in the same position, using one hand over the top of the other.  That and all the other complicated tricks, which went on non-stop, were a joy to watch.  Once again timing was important as the melody repeatedly stopped and restarted edging towards the perfectly timed finish.
The concert finished in 1892 with Tchaikovsky's familiar and popular ballet 'The Nutcracker Suite'.  The melody of the 'Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy' would normally be played on a celeste or similar ethereal sounding instrument.  Here David's bass continuo (they had swapped places again) supported Josephine's melody on the very highest keys of the piano.  On the superb Venables grand piano those top notes had such a good action and were so clear and sweet that the sound was almost better than any celeste.  The 'Arabian Dance' started with four hands in the bass.  David sustained a precise measured bass rhythm while Josephine built the theme beautifully.  At the conclusion the theme died away perfectly.  Finally we had the most popular dance of the ballet, the 'Russian Dance' (actually a Ukranian 'Trepak' dance).  All the insistent urgency and energy were there right up to the precise and sudden finish.  And the end to the concert.
No-one in the audience could say they had been disappointed by the range and the quality of the playing.  The most impressive and exciting way you could imagine spending your lunch hour!

Owing to tardiness this post is published after the subsequent Glenorchy concert: Wensleigh and Jackie Palmer (piano and soprano voice) which took place on Wednesday 26th January.  The next concert at Glenorchy will be:

Wednesday 2nd February 12.30 pm
Michelle Banting and Iain McDonald
(piano and baritone voice)
Glenorchy United Reformed Church, Exmouth

Advance publicity suggested that we might hear Ruth Avis (flute) and Rebecca Willson (piano) supporting Iain but, sadly, we won't be able to hear Ruth or Rebecca on 2nd February.

However, for all those people who love the flute playing of Ruth Avis (as featured on Phonic FM) there is a concert on 5th March, also in Exmouth, where Ruth will appear.  The 'Piazzolla Duo' of Ruth Avis and guitarist Clive Betts will perform an evening of 'Tango and Celtic' music for flute and guitar:

Tango and Celtic Music for Flute and Guitar
Holy Trinity Church, Exmouth
Saturday 5th March 7.30pm

More details nearer the time on this site
and on Phonic FM's 'Classical Journey' programme
(10-12am every Tuesday).

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