Monday, 7 March 2011

Exeter Bach Society: Bach Cantata No 22 and Piano Recital by Lara Melda

Bach Cantata Service in Exeter Cathedral
Early twelfth century Spanish wood panel painting of Jesus and the 12 Disciples
On Sunday evening worship at Exeter Cathedral was made extra special by the work of the Exeter Bach Society.  During evensong the EBS choir joined the St Peter's Singers, and were accompanied by a small chamber ensemble, in J. S. Bach's Cantata 22, 'Jesu Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe' ('Jesus gathered the twelve to himself').  Nicholas Marshall conducted and the instrumentalists included Julia Hill as first oboe (q.v.), and Anna Cockroft as first violin and Ruth Lass as 'cellist (q.v.).  Among the solists were alto Laurence Blyth and bass Julian Rippon (q.v.).  The service followed the theme of the cantata - which expresses man's limited comprehension of the world.  Laurence and Julian, with tenor Tom Castle, sang the arias and recitative, and took turns to accompany the choir in the opening Chorale - 'Sie aber vernahmen der keines und wussten nicht, was das gesaget war' ('But they heard nothing, and did not know what had been spoken').  The choir sang the final chorale, 'Ertöt uns durch dein Güte, Erweck uns durch dein Gnad' ('Kill us with your goodness, wake us by your grace').  A very beautiful cantata performed for all to enjoy free of charge - simply by attending the service.
Somerset soprano Mary O'Shea also took part, as always, with the St Peter's Singers.  It has been suggested that Mary will sing the soprano solo at the Service of Music for Palm Sunday (5pm 17 April).  Mary was also planning to sing with pianist John Scarfe this Tuesday on the 'Classical Journey'  apologies to eager listeners, but Mary has had to postpone her appearance until next week (15 March).


Piano Recital by Lara Melda
A safe pair of hands: Piano virtuoso, and
outright winner of 2010 Young Musician of the Year,
Lara Melda - in Exeter Cathedral Chapter House

After the service - which finished promptly at 6pm - there was more music along the corridor in the Chapter House.  This concert was not free.  £12 per head to see and hear the astounding virtuosity of 'Young Musician of the Year', Lara Melda.  At only 17, Lara shows incredible talent and maturity.  She is not only very young, but also very small - petite, one might say - but has a very big presence.  Dressed in the very grand red crushed velvet dress she wore for the final of the competition last year, she is extremely reminiscent of a young Germaine Thyssens-Valentin (as shown on the cover of some of her later recordings - see right).  Lara is also reminiscent of Mme. Thyssens-Valentin in deportment and musicianship.
Lara's bearing is regal - almost imperious - but tempered by a delightful smile which conveys the great pleasure she takes in playing, a pleasure that is matched by the enjoyment of those listening.  On Sunday night there was a great deal of wonderful music to hear and enjoy.
Lara began with the Fantaisie in C minor by J. S. Bach, appropriately for a Bach Society event.  This was simply perfect, but the linking phrases were particularly impressive, each flourish almost thrown away.  At times Lara concentrated hard on the keys, but at others she gazed into space with a sweet smile as if lost in her own thoughts.
Beethoven's Sonata No 11 was a big piece.  Long, in four grand movements, and ranging over the keyboard and through the full range of tone and expression.  The incredible complexity of the piece and the ease with which was played was eclipsed by the wonderful expression which was put into every phrase - each note was given its full meaning - as Beethoven intended.  To add to the amazement of the audience, not a single sheet of manuscript was anywhere to be seen.  Every piece that Lara played was completely from memory, as if simply holding a conversation, sometimes with the audience, sometimes apparently primarily with herself.
After holding the audience in Beethoven's magical world for what seemed an eternity, Lara proceeded to amaze everyone even further with Robert Schumann's Abegg Variations.  Schumann's variations are almost incomprehensible, running up and down the keyboard in endless and unbelievable embellishments.  Again every trill, every sweep up or down the keyboard, was measured and considered, never rushed, never disjointed.
After a few modest bows, Lara disappeared out to her 'dressing room' (undoubtedly not as hospitable as she deserved!)  Members of the audience were left to wonder how the romantic pieces of the second half would compare with the baroque and classical music of the first.
Franz Schubert's 'Gretchen am Spinnrade' ('Gretchen and the spinning wheel') rippled along beautifully suggesting the endless turning of the wheel, precise and regular as clockwork.  Lara's left hand, meanwhile, was was doing serious work in the melody section, building up to the most extraordinary level of force in the more passionate sections.  For all the ferocity of Lara's playing, the end when it came was surprisingly soft and gentle.
'Un Sospiro' (Italian: 'A Sigh') from Franz Liszt's 'Trois Études de Concert' was contrastingly gentle and relaxing, with more than a passing resemblance to the Largo of the 'New World Symphony' by Antonin Dvořák.  One devastating problem which had niggled throughout the performance became painfully apparent as 'Un Sospiro' drew to a close.  The loud pedal was in desperate need of lubrication and gave out an irritating creek every time it was released.  As the last lingering 'sigh' faded away it was inevitable that Lara would have to release the sustain - and, equally inevitably, a strangled squeak from the piano's innards broke the mood.  So sorry Lara.  We let you down!
The final pieces by Frédéric Chopin, Étude No 7 and Ballade No 1, have featured on past editions of the 'Classical Journey' - but not like this!  The Étude was so thrilling, so dynamic, that the infuriating sound of the groaning pedal linkage was quite forgotten - and often obliterated by the sheer volume of sound.  The Ballade was initially slower than the Étude, more gentle, but soon Chopin's passion started to creep in again.  Lara really understood the extreme mood Chopin wanted to convey and never let anyone forget it.  Some passages were almost crazy in their complexity and excitement.  After two hours of playing Lara was as fresh, full of vigour, and expressive in her playing, as she had been at the beginning.
The audience were absolutely delighted by the whole performance and begged for something more.  Lara returned to the piano and, having played almost non stop for two hours without music or any introductions, spoke for the first time - and very sweetly.  To bring us back to earth - something very modern.  Alberto Ginastera's Argentine Dance No 2.  Nineteenth century romanticism was replaced by twentieth century 'subjective nationalism'.  Gentle Argentine folk themes wove together into a beautiful dance, short but very sweet.  And then it really was the end.  Lara's programme had been perhaps the best, and certainly the most astounding, concert recital for quite a while.  Unstinting praise to Lara - an absolutely brilliant performance - and many thanks to the committee of the Exeter Bach Society for bringing such a talented musician to Exeter.
Having amazed and delighted the people of Exeter, Lara returns to her studies at the Purcell School for Young Musicians, to develop her skills yet further.  Meanwhile the Exeter Bach Society are already preparing another baroque concert for us.  Nicholas Marshall and Anna Cockroft will return to conduct and to lead the orchestra and tenor soloist Clement Hetherington will return with three more soloists from the Guildhall School of Music to perform J. S. Bach's final missa tota, in Latin, the 'Mass in B Minor'.

Exeter Bach Society Choir and Orchestra
St David's Church Exeter Saturday 2 April 7.30pm
J. S. Bach: Mass in B minor
Conductor: Nicholas Marshall
Leader: Anna Cockroft
Soprano: Raphaela Papadakis
Mezzo-Soprano: Catia Moreso
Tenor: Clement Hetherington
Bass: Ben McAteer
Tickets £15 (concessions £11)
Exeter Phoenix: 667080
Opus Classical (Exeter Guildhall): 214044
Roger Churchward: 468867

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