Monday, 14 February 2011

Natalya Zeman and Christopher Guild - Violin and Piano

A very stylish duo
pianist Christopher Guild
violinist Natalya Zeman
Wednesday evening this week saw an interesting cultural exchange between the two neighbouring counties of Devon and Somerset.  Laurence Blyth, Music Director of the Exmouth and Exeter Choral Societies, has recently become Music Director of Wellington Choral Society.  On Wednesday evening he was in Wellington for a rehearsal of the WCS production of Mozart's 'Requiem Mass' which will take place on Saturday 26 March (and give us another chance to hear Harriet Jones as soprano soloist).
Meanwhile Laurence had arranged for a 'specialist musician' from Wells Cathedral School, violinist Natalya Zeman, to give a public performance in Exeter Cathedral Chapter House.  Accompanying her for the evening was a post-graduate Royal College of Music student, pianist Christopher Guild.
They gave us a delightfully modern programme of music by Prokofiev, Elgar and Grieg (with a little baroque piano from Christopher to open the second half).
Natalya chose to play the first piece immediately and tell us about it afterwards.  Prokofiev's Opus 35, 'Five Melodies for Violin and Piano' was in four (?) movements.  The Andante had a muscular modern sound, played in slinky cooperation by the two very stylish musicians.  In the Lento ma non Troppo (not too slow) Natalya played the brushed pizzicato notes beautifully.  Christophers's controlled gallop on the piano was delightfully synchronised all the way to the soft drawn out final notes.  The Animato ma non Allegro was played with more power.  Natalia's harmonics and glissandi were dreamy and ethereal ending on a gorgeous muted and sustained high.  Finally the Allegretto Leggero e Scherzando was short but sweet with muted harmonics climbing higher and higher to leave us in mid-air.  Then, as promised, came a little explanation.  Prokofiev's Opus 35, 'Five Melodies for Violin and Piano' originally appeared in 1920 as 'Songs without Words' for voice and piano.  Not involving any actual words it became even more popular in the arrangement for violin and piano which came out in 1925.  Other instruments, including the flute, have been used, but I think Natalya presented a pretty good argument for the violin, through her playing.
And a very stylish performance
From early soviet Russia just after the First War the pair went back to the closing months of the war itself in England.  Brinkwells in Sussex was the home of Sir Edward Elgar.  Like everyone, he was very distressed by the experiences of the preceding years and his composing was influenced by the apparently interminable pounding of artillery on the other side of the Channel.  Elgar's Opus 82 'Sonata for Violin and Piano' reflects the influence of the war, and the players caught the mood precisely.  In the Allegro the piano playing was suddenly loud and aggressive with chords crashing out.  Natalya's violin playing was much more strident and cut through the sound like a knife.  Christopher came back by hammering the last note of each phrase - Elgar must have been really angry!  The Romance was definitely a tragic romance.  The pair created a very unsettling sequence of short phrases jumping between the instruments.  A little attempt at a dance theme on the piano cut short by a peremptory plucked chord on the violin.  The emotional intensity never faltered.  The final Allegro non Troppo was still heart-rending but more fluid with rippling chords on the piano supporting Natalya's impassioned playing - until the rôles were reversed.  The closing notes were supremely well timed with Christopher watching Natalya like a hawk to coordinate his pedal with the end of her bow stroke.  Such attention to detail is always a joy to watch - and hear.  A very polished end to a superb first half.
The Cathedral events team came up trumps as usual with the half-time refreshments.  Wine and canapés with convivial chat.  It was commented that one would normally expect to pay more than double the price of admission - and travel - to hear something similar in London.  Also the close and intimate setting of the Chapter House, where you can really get close to the musicians, was very much appreciated.
Phonic FM listeners have enjoyed extracts from Corelli's variations on 'La Follia' on the 'Classical Journey' many times, and Devon Baroque played an outstanding version last time they were here.  (They are back again this weekend, by the way, 18/19/20 Feb, details in the listings.)  Christopher opened the second half of the programme with a rather different take on 'La Follia', twelve solo piano variations on Jean-Baptiste Lully's original, composed by J S Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel.  It was fun to try to count the twelve different styles: original, precise dance, little runs up and down, wriggling like a snake, slow and gentle, triumphant, baroque style, fiendishly complex, slow and soulful, complex treble with a simple bass pedal, back to the original theme.  I lost count somewhere, there should definitely have been two more.  Christopher ran the movements together so smoothly it was easy to lose track.
Here's one for Chistopher's facebook page!
Having enjoyed some very welcome light relief, we were treated to some music intermediate between the baroque and the modern music that started the programme.  Edvard Grieg composed his second sonata for piano and violin in Oslo in 1867.  He had recently married and had also embraced a fervent Norwegian nationalism.  There was none of Elgar's rage and melancholy in this piece.  The opening Lento Dolorose was gentle and fluid rather than sad.  The Allegro was also begun in a restful melody but as the theme was developed became more disjointed and unpredictable - not a problem for the musicians, who never lost their way.  The Allegretto Tranquillo was a slower version of a similar theme with tentative and tremulous top notes on the violin reaching higher and higher, masterfully held together.  Then Natalya was playing on two strings at once, but never faltering and almost making it look easy.  The Allegro Animato was a real adventure, complex runs on the violin interspersed with occasional plucked  phrases.  There was some respite in the middle but the piano soon came back with it's thrilling theme.  The final flourish on the piano was all it should be, and again Christopher was very careful to watch for Natalya's finish as well.
To finish the programme Natalya treated us to the party piece, 'Tzigane' by Maurice Ravel.  Once more we were in the 1920s but now in Paris and in a very expansive frame of mind.  This rhapsody on the theme of Romany music was composed for Joseph Joachim's great-niece, the Hungarian violinist Hunyadvári Aranyi Jelly.  An interesting name, and very interesting music.  The opening was haunting and mysterious, with the melancholy minor chords of an Eastern European lament.  Then slowly and imperceptibly Natalya shifted the mood towards a thrilling cadenza.  No piano yet, Christopher had to wait patiently at the keyboard.  Without warning he started to play and the fun really began.  Natalya's part was fiendishly complicated - and Chrisopher wasn't being given an easy time either.  The resulting sound was not only almost incomprehensible, but also gorgeously musical.  Well done to both musicians, and thank you for working so hard for our pleasure.
Thanks must also go to the Cathedral staff who arrange these amazing concerts in the Cathedral and Chapter House.  It's always worth keeping an eye on their listings.

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