Jonathan Berkahn and friends celebrate St Patrick’s Day + 2 with charm and wit

St Andrew’s: Lunchtime in Ireland

Jonathan Berkahn and friends (Bernard Wells – recorder, Janet Broome-Nicholson – percussion, Carol Shortis – piano, Ingrid Schoenfeld – piano, Michelle Velvin – harp)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 19 March, 12:15 pm

It was only a month earlier that Jonathan Berkahn was at St Andrew’s playing both the church’s organs, and one is used to his appearing more discreetly, accompanying choirs and small ensembles.

Here, Jonathan was more centre stage, wielding his piano accordion, though he was also at the piano keyboard sometimes, stage left, and handling a recorder. As well as playing, he demonstrated a talent as compere and musicologist as he spoke interestingly, in a witty manner about the music and its composers.

We were expecting Irish stuff; if not of the River Dance variety, then at least sentimental popular songs and reels. That hope was fulfilled right towards the end, especially as he was joined in a groups of jigs and reels by Bernard Wells on the flute and Janet Broome-Nicholson on a slim drum, perhaps a kind of frame drum. Berkahn broke ranks there with a recorder to his lips and then moved to the piano to pick up an accompaniment, tentatively at first, in a lively reel.

But it began, perhaps noting Radio NZ Concert’s ‘Composers of the Week’ by Cynthia Morahan featuring Irish composers, particularly William Vincent Wallace (Maritana) and Charles Villiers Stanford, with one who is a well-known Irish composer.

John Field was a genuine Irish composer who was apprenticed to and soon exploited by Clementi in London and then taken to Russia where he spent the best part of his increasingly extravagant and feckless life. With Ingrid Schoenfeld, Berkahn played one of Liszt’s arrangements (four hands) of Field’s many Nocturnes (a form which he invented, and was made famous of course by Chopin).

I can’t resist reproducing a comment (found in Wikipedia) by Liszt about Field’s Nocturnes:
“None have quite attained to these vague eolian harmonies, these half-formed sighs floating through the air, softly lamenting and dissolved in delicious melancholy. Nobody has even attempted this peculiar style, and especially none of those who heard Field play himself, or rather who heard him dream his music in moments when he entirely abandoned himself to his inspiration.”

Was a bit like that.

Then came a surprise: Geminiani. He became an important figure as violinist in London musical circles, but also spent two periods in Dublin.
The real surprise was Berkahn’s appearing with his accordion to play Geminiani’s first Violin Sonata (Op 1, No 1), which Geminiani had arranged for the harpsichord. That move often seems to give licence to later musicians to play fast and loose with such a piece, arranging it for any old instrument. It sounded as if Geminiani really had the accordion in mind all along; yet was hard to conceal its Corelli-Handel influence.

A rarity for one not steeped in Irish music was a set of short pieces by Turlough O’Carolan, an early 18th century musician who became blind, but composed lots of melodies that survived through the ages. They were ineffably, charmingly Irish in flavour especially as played on Michelle Velvin’s Irish harp with Berkahn at the piano.

Composer/arranger/pianist Carol Shortis then contributed a couple of traditional Irish songs: she sang them with an unaffected, easy voice, that did nostalgia in the most charming manner, accompanying herself at the piano. They were sweet, intrinsically sentimental, without a scrap of maudlin.

There was an above-average sized audience which gave off an air of real enjoyment at the music and its artless performers.


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