Blythe Press, violin, in Chausson, Prokofiev and Pärt

Chausson: Poème, Op 25; Prokofiev: Five Melodies for violin and piano, Op 35b; Pärt: Fratres

Blythe Press (violin) and Emma Sayers (piano)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace. Wednesday 23 September 

Don’t ever overlook the lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s! Of course, they vary widely, in genre, between instruments and voices and sometimes other things, in musical experience and skill, but more often than not, there’s a real treat in store.  

Every so often a concert comes along that deserves a much bigger crowd and perhaps a more prestigious venue, though that’s a factor I fight; for one thing, it is being used as a principal criterion by The Dominion Post for publishing music reviews, with some unfortunate results.

Wednesday the 23rd was a special one.

I’ve been observing Blythe Press, violinist from the Kapiti Coast, since he was a notable performer in the Schools Chamber Music Contests. After starting studies at Victoria University he gained sufficient awards to enable him to complete a music degree at Graz, in Austria. His record of competition triumphs is already, at 20, impressive.  

I fancy this is my first hearing of Chausson’s Poème, in the piano version. It sounds so different, with the violin standing tonally more distinct when accompanied by the piano (I cannot find a piano arrangement listed in Chausson’s entry in New Grove or on the Internet: it must be a publisher’s arrangement).

Yet its warm romantic spirit remained intact in the hands of these two players; nothing sentimental, or exaggerated, but rather, taste, sincerity of expression, and a considerable technique – I mean of both players – that was unobtrusive, and at the disposal of the music. It consists of several short sections, thematically linked but varying in character, and each, even the somewhat light-weight section hinting at the salon, emerged with honesty, in this context.

Prokofiev’s Five Melodies are a surprising product of the composer’s years of exile, this written in California. No hint of the wild young man of forbidding dissonance and ferocious technical demands, these pieces are to enjoy, and their choice could well serve to remind listeners that not all music after the first World War sought to poke the audience in the eye.

Yet they are by no means child’s play, though Press made them sound fairly plain-sailing. Nevertheless, the melodies would hardly have arisen in the imaginations of earlier composers, such is the strong personality of Prokofiev’s music and Press negotiated all the writhing, complex lines.  

Prokofiev is not a composer to be in the proximity of, say, some of his English contemporaries, who might sound flaccid and insipid in the same room (are my prejudices showing?). The playing of both musicians was arresting and their virtually flawless and riveting performances simply held the audience – bigger than normal – spell-bound.

As if two small masterpieces were not enough, the pair then played what has become one of the best–loved chamber pieces of the past 30 years. Fratres is an extraordinary piece in several ways, one being its non-specific instrumentation; its original incarnation was for string quintet and wind quintet, but the version played here is one of the most effective, allowing its clear musical character to emerge independent of the crutch of colourful combinations. Press’s fast opening cross-string arpeggios established his authority at once, and with the emphatic piano chords, a wonderfully gripping experience held the audience. The mystic passages that followed evoked the monastic atmosphere that Pärt sought, monks moving about dark gothic aisles, and finally the piano chords punctuating the violin’s great oratorical statement, were so impressively and movingly expressed by these two instruments.

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