Concert Review

Michael Bochmann (violin) & Michael Blackmore (piano)
Lion Ballroom, Leominster
18 November 2012

An Espressivo promotion

In the High Street, M&S’s Michael may have lost some of his saintly lustre, but in Leominster’s Lion Ballroom the two Michaels proved to be pure gold through and through.

Michael Bochmann and Michael Blackmore are living, not to say lively, proof that the whole can add up to more than the sum of the separate parts - however good each part may be – and in this case that’s very good. Each brilliant respectively on violin and piano, as a duo they show the benefit of long familiarity with each other’s musical thoughts, feelings and techniques. But never does familiarity breed contempt. However well they know the music and each other, they are always finding something new in it, something unique to the moment, to share with each other and the audience.

Therein lies the true necessity for ‘live’ performance, something which the teaching in our schools is failing to impart to generations of the young, if we judge by present day audiences, made up almost entirely of the middle-aged and the elderly. How rarely does one see teen-agers and people in their twenties at local recitals. When this generation of us Not-So-Golden Oldies is gone, who will replace us?

And it is not for the want of trying by Concert Society Committees, or those who struggle to ensure that places like the Lion Ballrom survive, or the organizers of this particular event. Espressivo have enthusiasm as well as expertise; but getting bums on seats is very hard going in these difficult recessionary days. A thankless task indeed; one can only hope the flame of their candle in a naughty world will not be snuffed out by the misguided priorities and incompetencies of politicians, whose only skill seems to be always to get everything wrong.

One wonders what is wrong with music in our schools, which seem content to create a generation of young people who play and sing and compose, and have I-phones and MP3 headphones, but never have instilled in them the habit of going to hear live classical music in concert halls.

Paradoxically, individual teaching of musicians has never been better. Two exemplary musicians were before us in the Lion Ballroom. Both had studied with fine teachers; both have devoted much time to passing on to others the skills they learned from those teachers, wanting to share music and the making of music not just with audiences but with the next generation of players and interpreters.

Michael Blackmore was a pupil of James Gibb at the Guildhall and with Erica Haase in Hanover. He built a significant career as soloist, accompanist, and chamber musician, but also devoted himself to teaching at the Guildhall, one of his pupils being Thomas Adès.

Michael Bochmann was a pupil of Frederick Grinke at the Royal Academy: later he studied with Henryk Szeryng and Sandor Vegh. In 1977 he founded the Bochmann Quartet and later, determined to share his skills and knowledge, embarked on masterclasses, intensive courses, and coaching of young professional quartets. One thinks of a violinist twenty years his senior, Eli Goren, who similarly founded a Quartet, the Allegri, in 1955, and was leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but gave up that post to have more time to teach.

So what a shame that there were not more present in the Lion Ballroom this November Sunday afternoon, not just to revel in the marvellous performances but to enjoy the setting of this beautiful Early Victorian room, carefully restored by English Heritage with the generous co-operation of the Hinton brothers that owned it. The Ballroom’s scale - and its Steinway B – is admirably suited to chamber music: in this instance a programme heroically built on two giants of the fiddle repertoire – the sonatas by Cesar Franck and Edward Elgar. Talk about piling Pelion on Ossa!

One of the compensations of getting into one’s eighties is that one is old enough to have heard Vegh, and Ricci and Du Pré live, Campoli and Menuhin, and the Griller and the Amadeus; and Curzon and Cortot, Kentner and Cherkassky, and Moiseiwitsch and Solomon; not to mention Richter’s very first London recital and Victoria de Los Angeles’s first night as Butterfly at Covent Garden. (One is never too old to boast!)

But Heifetz and Rubinstein in the Franck Sonata one knew only from endlessly-played HMV Red Label 78s. A touchstone, indeed.

Anyway, comparisons are odious – and unnecessary in this instance. The two Michaels did the music and themselves proud. And what music! Is there anything in the repertoire more simply and confidently happy than the last movement of the Franck Sonata? Or more tenderly introspective than its first movement?

As to Elgar, well, ‘happy’ is not a word one would readily apply to him, his life, or his music. He wants to be happy: he tries to be; but at best finds happiness only in imagining it, in the memory of its loss, or of never having really found it. To hear the final movements of these two sonatas played consecutively surely illustrates that difference conclusively?

Michael De-la Noy’s wonderful book ‘Elgar The Man’, ends at his burial alongside Alice. De-la-Noy quotes Elgar’s own memory of his walks to school with a friend, the sun at their backs “filling Payne’s Meadow with glory and illuminating for two small boys a world to conquer and to love”. De-la Noy’s final sentence is - ‘It was the tragedy of Elgar’s tormented life that while he succeeded in conquering the world he never learned to love it’.

And in1934, one of the small group of mourners at the graveside was Billy Reed, who gave the very first performance of this sonata, in 1919. The sonata is wracked by passion and defiance, and hope, and heroism and longing. Written in the peaceful beauty of the Sussex countryside against the background of four years of the Great War’s mindless slaughter, in the central Romance it asks unanswerable questions that go wistfully, resignedly, unanswered.

These two Michaels told us that in approaching the work, they had cast aside the layers of interpretation that ‘tradition’ has brought to it. They turned to the score anew, to see what Elgar actually wrote (and he was always generous and precise with his markings – and did not hang about in his own interpretations!). Doing exactly what it said on the tin brought fresh illumination to the work, enhancing its claim to be right up there among Elgar’s greatest works. What more could one want on a November Sunday afternoon, except the beauty of a Grieg transcription and a fireworks show-piece to bring us down from the heights?

Peter Williams

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