Four feasts forward – Catherine McKay and Peter Barber at St.Andrew’s

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
Catherine McKay (piano) and Peter Barber (viola)

Music by Schumann, Enescu, Rachmaninov and Brahms

St.Andrews-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 4th March, 2015

At the beginning of the concert Peter Barber announced a change to the printed programme, one involving both a rearrangement of the existing order, and an additional item. So, Brahms’ FAE Sonata Scherzo Movement, which was to have opened the programme now became its concluding item; and an arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise for viola and piano was introduced, here put just before the Brahms.

It all seemed to work marvellously well, even if, right at the concert’s beginning I was troubled by the venue’s lively, somewhat over-insistent acoustic which blurred the lines in the first of Schumann’s four Märchenbilder”(Fairy-tale Pictures), the one marked “Nicht Schnell”. Always the most sensitive and accommodating of musical partners, pianist Catherine McKay seemed here to be made to produce a sound too richly-upholstered in places, so that the reticent tones of the viola were often lost in the exchanges.

Happily, the following “Lebhaft” seemed to restore those balances more fairly – perhaps the performers had by this time “gotten the pitch of the hall” – with more tone and presence from the viola, the piece’s “swagger” was given full play, the music’s excitement made palpable for us as a result. I still thought the “scherzando” episodes could have done with a lighter touch, as they tended to blur a little in the acoustic.

The third piece “Rasch” excitingly galloped its way into the sound-picture, with the pianist’s playing most skillfully accommodating the viola’s lines as required throughout the music’s narratives, without the music’s edge being at all lost or dimmed. What a marvellously haunted piece this was – and what balm for the senses was the “trio” section, the players beautifully “covering” their tones, wanting to make the greatest possible contrast with the spooky gallopings,  which returned to scalp-prickling effect

After all this, the final “Langsam, mit melancholischem Ausdruck” seemed like a prayer of homecoming.  We got lovely, limpid sounds, together with gently, lullabic lines on the violin – very “Brahmsian”  in effect, I thought. Despite that comment, for the most part it was music that could have been by no other composer than Schumann.

Interestingly, Peter Barber told us (wisely, at the work’s end) that the composer had noted down his inspiration for each of the pieces – the first two from the Rapunzel legend, the third from the story of Rumpelstiltskin, and the last one the Sleeping Beauty!

I didn’t know the next item, George Enescu’s Concertpiece. It appeared to be in a  single movement, but made up of two distinct sections – the first, headed, “Assez animé” established a winsome, “out-of-doors” feeling at the start, leading towards declamatory phrases (fanfares from the piano), and then followed by misterioso chromatic figurations, all of these moods coloured and characterized beautifully by the players. A return to the opening brought more celebratory flourishes, and “thrills and spills” moments which here played their part in conveying the extent of the musicians’ commitment to the task – after the energies had been spent, the viola soared aloft to a tender harmonic and a gently-plucked concluding chord.

At which point the music moved strongly and more darkly into a new “Animé”, with textures rather more stark and focused – these sequences were contrasted with passages in which the pair enchanted us with their lightness of touch and lyricism of phrasing. The tensions very satisfyingly built up amid moments of full-throated lyricism turning into energetic flourishes. Each player supported the other – the piano trumpeting and celebrating as the viola gathered momentum, and the string energies helping the piano to make a brilliant impression. As it would have been “new music” for many listeners, I thought it received wonderful advocacy.

I’d never heard Rachmaninov’s Vocalise played by a dark-hued instrument before – and the performance here was a revelation! Away from the brilliance and stratospheric freedom of the soprano voice, the piece took on the quality of an out-and-out lament, growing out of something meditative and deeply-felt, and transcending its mere “wordless song” association. Particularly telling in this performance was the interweaving of lines, with viola and piano tightly integrated and thus underscoring the intensity of it all. For one repetition of the melody the viola took its line up an octave, but it was the music’s deep-voiced intensities that in the end impressed most profoundly. After this, for me, the piece will never be the same again.

That left the Brahms Movement to “return us to our lives” – though in the event it was more a state of “separate reality” to which we were taken here, rather than any semblance of normality. What a wonderfully gutsy opening to a piece of music! And it was all fuelled by playing whose energy and incisiveness was just what the doctor ordered. I like the way the “schwung” of the opening took in both melody and rhythm without stinting, with just the right amount of skin and hair flying about to make a proper “cheek-by-jowl” contrast with the music’s relatively serene trio section.

However, the trio sequence still resonated with fragments of the opening rhythm, whose full force returned with almost Brucknerian power (what would Brahms have thought of THAT comparison, I wonder?). Music and playing fused feeling, energy and commitment into something grandly celebratory at the piece’s end – and the lunchtime audience was quick to express its appreciation of the performers. It was a good attendance, too, which bodes well for the 2015 season of one of the capital’s most highly-regarded musical series.




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