“Deux du même” give considerable pleasure at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concerts presents

Fiona McCabe and Catherine Norton – piano duet

JOSEPH JONGEN (1873-1953) – 2 Pieces from “Pages Intimes”
Il était une fois (Once upon a time….)
Le Bon Chîval (The Good Horse)

Rondo D.951 “Grand rondeau”

SERGEI RACHMANINOV  (from “Six morceaux” Op.11)
Slava! (Glory)

St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington

Wednesday 20th July 2016

The concerts I enjoy the most, I think, are those which, in a sense, I don’t really see “coming” – that is to say, those I wouldn’t beforehand expect to enjoy as much as sometimes turns out. So it was such a pleasure to be set upon, taken over, surprised by joy and delight, and thoroughly warmed through-and-through by the duet-playing of Fiona McCabe and Catherine Norton in their recent St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace lunchtime recital!

These two musicians (styling their partnership as “Deux du même” – two of the same) conveyed to us such engagement with and enjoyment of both the music and the process of bringing it to life, I for one at the end of it all felt both delighted with what we’d heard and frustrated that this wasn’t a full-length concert!  It was more than any one thing which worked this alchemy of performance pleasure – every ingredient in the mix, repertoire, technique, rapport, commitment, focus, the instrument, the venue, had something to contribute to the exhilaration and satisfaction afforded by the occasion.

Beginning with the repertoire, the choices were fascinating – here was my first experience of the music of Belgian composer Joseph Jongen (even if the name wasn’t entirely unknown to me), and a most stimulating one. From a work, Pages Intimes, originally written for piano duet and later orchestrated, came two absolutely delightful movements, the first appropriately entitled Il etait une fois…. (Once upon a time….). Reminiscent of Ravel, and none the less for that, the piece played with a three-note motif, with the music gradually becoming more filigree in character – a very atmospheric and flowing performance, flecked with currents and flashes of light.

The second movement, Le Bon Chîval (The Good Horse), demonstrated plenty of joie de vivre, as well as a good deal of “personality” in the music’s varied flow – there was nothing remotely mechanical in these trajectories, but exciting and engaging momentums, a journey punctuated by both excitements and reflections, with the music’s ending a kind of reminiscence of the ride.

The players having established their partnership, even to the extent of overcoming the irritation of a squeaky piano seat, Fiona McCabe and Catherine Norton proceeded to change places for the next item, Franz Schubert’s Rondo D.951.This was the composer’s final four-hands work, published a month after his death with the title “Grand Rondeau”. McCabe and Norton brought it all to life once again, encouraging the piece’s innate lyricism to blossom while allowing the dovetailed rhythms to chatter and burble in excited conversation.

The duo’s playing also caught the different character of the sequences, such as with a prayer-like passage just before the recapitulation – it had a different dimension of manner to what had gone before, more intimate and direct, voiced as though something other-worldly had appeared and was speaking with the composer’s own tones. Schubert obviously enjoyed surprising his listeners, switching almost without warning occasionally between lyrical outpourings and passages of great declamation, and taking us on harmonic explorations of wondrous spontaneity. The duo relished these flavoursome instances of unfettered creativity, and were ready and waiting at the piece’s rounding-off, with the theme stealing back in the bass and counterpointed in an insouciant, “I know you’re there” way – marvellous playing!

Rachmaninov’s contributions to the four-handed piano literature encompass both works for duet and for two pianos – his Op.11 collection “Six Morceaux” was written in a few short months in 1896, a year before the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony. Of course, nothing of that unforeseen setback clouded the achievement of this work, in both keyboard and compositional terms the most impressive of the young composer’s efforts to date.

While one would have liked to have heard the whole set, which is seldom performed in public, Catherine Norton and Fiona McCabe earned our gratitude in presenting four of the six pieces. They began with the Barcarolle, one whose waters seemed to be the darker, more chilly Slavic kind rather than the usual indolent sun-drenched Mediterranean variety. The pair instantly established the music’s restless, volatile character, then, from out of these yearning, unsettled beginnings and the swirling figurations that followed, brought forth the impressive, cathedral-like theme in its different versions – like looking at the same structure from different viewpoints. An example of this was the way in which the theme returned accompanied by a triplet rhythm, the music wreathed in bleak harmonies before being softened by some warmer right-hand figurations, and a ray of sunshine with the final chord.

Next was the Waltz, angular and laconic, with po-faced humour, expressed by mischievous impulses punctuating the lines – the players even unintentionally went as far as losing a moment or two of synchronisation, but soon caught up with one another – all in the interests of the music’s character, of course! I liked the Satie-like timbres in places, with tintinabulating treble figures set dancing, and a delightfully throw-away ending with which to round off the piece.

With the Romance that followed, the music was all full-throated sonority, anguished declamations subjected to obsessively repeated chromatic figurations – more a “Lament” than a “Romance” I thought, on this, my first hearing. The intensities didn’t let up with the final movement, titled “Slava” (Glory), one which used the well-known Russian folk-tune employed by both Beethoven in his Op.59 No.2 “Rasumovsky Quartet” and Musorgsky in the coronation scene of his opera “Boris Godunov”. The theme emerged canonically at first, the players skilfully controlling its ever-growing amplitude before allowing it to blaze forth over the final pages – in effect it almost out-Musorgskied Musorgsky in his “Pictures at an Exhibition” mode. Sensationalist that I am, I particularly enjoyed the minor-key version of it in the bass, with shrill treble trills ringing out at the other end of the keyboard. Catherine Norton and Fiona McCabe held us in thrall throughout with their playing, building up to and delivering sonorities that threatened most excitingly to burst at the seams, and overwhelm us in great floodings of tone and energy. Exhilarating, and at the end, most satisfying – bravo!




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