Concert Review

Alvor Duo
Sarah Newbold (flute) and Katherine Thomas (harp)
Hellens, Much Marcle, nr Ledbury
9 September 2018

An Espressivo promotion

“One beautiful note is enough…”
So once said Norman Brainin, 1st Violin of the world-renowned and late-lamented Amadeus Quartet. The thought came to mind, hearing the first note of the Adagio of a Bach Sonata in G Minor played by Sarah Newbold on a matchingly lovely September afternoon in the Great Barn at Hellens Manor.

One drawn-out note that the ear wanted to go on and on; and on. (Like Salieri, in ‘Amadeus’, perhaps, hearing for the very first time the oboe’s first note in the Adagio of Mozart’s Gran Partita?) Of course, it couldn’t and it didn’t! And it was followed by many lovely notes, until the same thought recurred when the movement ended with another long note that faded into silence so gently that one could hardly say when the music ended and the silence began. Those two notes were almost enough - momentarily came the heretical thought “Let’s just all skip straight to the strawberries and cream” that the concert’s promoters were generously providing gratis in the interval.

Was this Sonata written by Johann Sebastian Bach or his son Carl Philipp? Probably the latter - one could hear why Mozart was excited and inspired by CPE - the lighter touch and the dancing tunes. But what did the attribution matter? It is a delightful work, and benefited from the keyboard part being played not on Johann Sebastian’s harpsichord but on a harp, nearer to Carl Philipp’s fortepiano which could play both loud and soft.

Which brings us to Mozart, and Derek Smith’s continuing labour of love, resurrecting and reinventing repertoire that in original form is barely ever heard in the recital room. In this instance an early String Quartet, which responded intriguingly to a transcription that accorded well with the importance to Mozart of melody, with the lower three parts in a largely supporting role. This early in the development of the String Quartet as an art form, this works well enough, but would be more problematic in the case of Mozart’s later quartets when he locked horns with the format’s inventor, Haydn. Meanwhile, we had the pleasure of hearing music ‘live’ that otherwise might never have featured in a recital programme. And though this was early Mozart (written when he was seventeen years old), it had, in the Andante, some very telling if brief moments - not long notes, this time, but another vital element in all great music - silence. Very grown-up moments!

Then it was time for a solo by Katherine Thomas with her gilded German harp, glittering and shimmering in both sight and sound. A prelude and fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which Katherine engagingly told us she had spent two years learning for her Grade 8 Piano Exam. Again, in a transcription that appeared to hold no terrors for a wonderful technique and sensitive musicality, the delicate gradations of sound and separation of the fugal voices reminding one that Bach’s personal keyboard instrument of choice was not the harpsichord but the clavichord. Only the sheer richness of the sound and resonance of a concert-size chromatic pedal harp were perhaps a shade anachronistic; but Bach would surely have loved it - music for him could be played on and adapted for whatever instruments came to hand, and the more the merrier.

Merriment was very evident when Sarah returned to play another work by Derek Smith - and yet another première - “Perky Piper” for Piccolo & Harp - the combination another first for both composer and players. We are often told that Heaven is a place where we shall eat caviar to the sound of trumpets, and of course Angels on harps: here the Recording Angel picked up her skirts to chase a very skittish Piccolo round the Pearly Gates, skidding contrapuntally from key to key. Derek has a wit that is rare in music - not a medium that lends itself easily to being funny. His sense of humour goes well with his sense of proportion. He knows exactly what he does best and naturally, and does it unpretentiously, thereby giving us huge satisfaction and quiet enjoyment.

Enjoyment was also to be seen in both the players when introducing the music. There was laughter in their voices, and sheer delight in what the music meant to them. But then - sudden silence, as total professionalism concentrated on performing and sharing the music with the audience. And to that end Hellens’ Great Barn is an ideal setting for the intimacy of chamber music - though big enough to make such events commercially viable!

After Donizetti had taken us back two hundred years with his Flute Sonata, in which the flute shamelessly hogged the limelight like any operatic coloratura, came the interval, and the gastronomic equivalent of flute and harp - strawberries and cream, with a shortbread biscuit for good measure.

The second half of the programme was firmly embedded in the 20th Century – apart from an Arabesque written in about 1890 by Debussy, who arguably was the very source and fountain-head of 20th century music. His influence, eighty years on, was evident in William Alwyn’s Naiades - Debussy’s Sicilian L’Après-midi d’un faune and Ravel’s Ondine translated to the reed beds of Suffolk. Alwyn was a flautist as well as a composer, and this Fantasy-Sonata is a significant and substantial contribution to the repertoire, having been written for the husband and wife duo Christopher Hyde-Smith and Maria Robles.

Ian Clarke is another flautist/composer, who straddles the two unlikely worlds of classical and rock music. The three pieces we heard were written for flute and piano, but Katherine had done an impeccable job of transcribing the piano part to her harp.

Finally, in this elegantly and thoughtfully contrived programme, came Variations on the folk song ‘Early one Morning’, by another performer/composer - Jean-Michel Damase. His mother had been the harpist for whom Ravel wrote his Introduction and Allegro, so his sense of style and acuteness of ear could not have had more impeccable foundations. These intricate variations, written in 1982, hide their sophistication behind a mask of easy enjoyment - and could anyone find a lovelier tune to play around with? And the final climax, with the flute soaring majestically over the surging harp, seagull over ocean, (not a million miles away from Britten’s finale to his Variations on Purcell’s Rondeau?), was Hair-prickling-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff.

Get yourself the CD, and also get a ticket for Sarah’s return, to Leominster’s Lion Ballroom on Sunday 16th September, when she will be playing with Cardiff Winds. Not to be missed!

Peter Williams

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