Concert Review

Corinne Frost (cello) and Janine Smith (piano)
Lion Ballroom, Leominster
3 November 2013

An Espressivo promotion

TIMING is crucial in so many things, (ask any concert promoter trying to avoid a clash with rival recitals).  Leominster’s Lion Ballroom was itself a victim of wrong timing - built to adorn a coaching inn,  just when the railway came to Leominster, leaving the beautiful Ballroom bereft of its commercial raison d’etre, and struggling ever since to justify its survival and pay its way. 

In music of course, timing is an essential factor for the performers, especially when there is more than one of them.  Tempi are matters for straightforward (?) negotiation, but phrasing and pulse and rubato - the heart and soul of the music - appear easy and right only when players have the instinctive trust in each other that comes with time and effort.

Corinne Frost and Janine Smith possess just that rapport, and displayed it to the full, when they returned on yet another sunny Sunday afternoon in November, with an all-Russian programme of music for cello and piano.  Their choice of repertoire was very interesting and thought-provoking,  some of it well-known to audiences, some less familiar,  and all clearly dear to the players.

The  Cello Sonata by Rachmaninov, which ended the afternoon  (apart from a delicious little encore), requires not “just” an accompanist, or, to use the current jargon, a “collaborative artist”, but a pianist of solo virtuosic ability, and Janine Smith took its challenges in her heroic and unfussing stride. 

This romantic sonata, the last piece of chamber music that Rachmaninov ever wrote, followed close after the 2nd Piano Concerto, and sounds often like a continuance of that concerto, with the cello standing in for the orchestra. Who could hear it without (railways again!) remembering Brief Encounter,  the station buffet, and Trevor Howard removing the smut from Celia Johnson’s eye, and all that quintessential middle-aged middle-class love affair that ended so, so sadly.   Both players had their hands full with so many notes, such great romantic sweeps, such subtle rubato;  but they had all confidence in each other,  each able to get on with their own part, knowing that the other would keep in responsive step.

The first half of the programme included two arrangements, of string quartet movements.  Players of instruments other than the piano are always hard up for repertoire; and both these famous slow movements, the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s 1st Quartet, and the Nocturne from Borodin’s 2nd, are so lovely that no-one can blame other instruments for pinching them for their own repertoire.  We were assured that Tchaikovsky himself was happy for this arrangement to be made.   And indeed, the tune deserves to be heard frequently.  But, at least to the ears of your scribe, neither movement was adequately served by translating the other fiddle parts onto the piano..  

This was in no way the fault of the players, but the recital revealed the problems that a composer faces in balancing cello and piano.  Texture is a vital ingredient of quartet writing, and a melody given to the cello can be set among the other strings in ways that allow it to speak distinctly: but the piano is at its richest in the same register as the cello, and in note-for-note transcriptions not only is something lost but damage is easily done  to the original texture and colour.  

(Cesar Franck approved his Violin Sonata being played on the cello. Well, one has heard Beethoven’s Violin Concerto played on the clarinet.  Nice for cellists and clarinettists: but not, perhaps, for the original works themselves?  Anyway, what business has your scribe to argue with Tchaikovsky and Franck?  Well, remember how reluctant Benjamin Britten was ever to have his music performed in any keys other than the original?)

Shostakovich was well aware of the textural problems of writing for piano and cello, and in the most interesting and successful work in this programme, his Sonata Opus 40, he showed how to tackle the problem, and solve it. When the cello occupied the middle tonal ground, the pianist’s left hand was kept deep in the bass, the right hand high in the treble, well out of the way of the cello, so clarity of texture was triumphantly achieved.

One of Corinne’s improvisations was thrown in for good measure (how nice to hear this art form, beloved of Mozart and Marcel Dupre, to name but two, other than in the meanderings of cathedral organists after divine service).

Espressivo’s Winter and Spring Season in the Lion Ballroom at Leominster is winning friends and audiences - not necessarily the same thing, as enthusiastic impresarios learn the hard way.  The Ballroom is of a scale that admirably suits the town it is set in, but its maximum capacity of 120 is rarely tested: the challenge for any promoter is to find and retain an audience big enough to pay the artists and the overheads. Budgets have to be set realistically, artists found willing to live within that budget.  Full marks to Espressivo’s efforts so far.  And grateful thanks to the artists, who must be performing more for the sake of sharing the music than for putting money in the bank: and to the volunteers who are trying so hard to make this venue a viable and thriving one.  

Peter Williams

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