Concert Review

Pittville Pump Room
30 November 2014

An Espressivo promotion

Pittville magic! Twenty youthful players bursting with enthusiasm and delight at performing in such a splendid jewel of a building – to such a receptive audience. Under the dome of its beautiful ballroom, this Regency relic of the ‘spa’ age offered inspiration to all as Meyrick Alexander led his Chamber Winds through a most invigorating programme.

Under the afternoon sun, one could imagine the expectant thrill of arriving by carriage at the stone colonnaded front of this Grade I listed building (the last and largest of the spa buildings built in Cheltenham) - the sweeping aspect of landscaped park lawns, sloping down to ornamental lakes, setting us up for the enjoyment to come.

All today’s musical offerings were arrangements – of works by Haydn, Brahms, Mozart and Dvorak – with Derek Smith reworking three of the four. He is a much-valued, long-term friend to groups of musicians in need of repertoire. The musical world owes a great debt to people like Derek – who help reveal new soundscapes to an ever more discerning and demanding audience ...

Derek’s arrangement of ‘Variations on a Theme by Haydn’, by Brahms, opened the concert and immediately sparked off a fascinating chain of historical development - from the original 17th century theme (a pilgrimage song attributed to Haydn but probably written by one of his pupils), through the rich diversity of Brahms’ 19th century expansion to the present day. Beautifully played with precise and intricate ebbs and flows, the variations within variations swept towards a triumphant and powerful finale ... ‘stoked up’ over the years!

The ensemble was joined, in Nicholas Reader’s arrangement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G, by magnificent soloist Richard McMahon. The flowing Winds welcomed the piano into the first ‘Allegro’ movement with clear, ‘human’, breath-led textures and, compelled to listen so carefully to the marvellous blend of tones, not a note was to be missed. The piano’s delicacy and the ensemble’s support danced through the layers and, though so sensitive, Richard was not distracted from the relentless, skilled control of his lines. We knew where he was going and joined him on his journey. Individual wind players set up the Andante with luscious, mellow tones that enhanced the sensual piano entry and highly emotional passages to follow. As to be expected, Richard displayed total understanding of weight on the keys – a ‘touch’ which seemed truly deep seated and emanating from within him ... The piano not only spoke to us, it ‘sang’ - with a rare sensuousness and ‘soul’ – a signature quality of this particular pianist. His wonderful playing was thoroughly appreciated by a transfixed audience and explained his huge success, over the years, both as performer and teacher.

Derek Smith’s version of the wittily imaginative ‘Harmoniemusik in C’ by Haydn led us out into the European outdoors - where ‘harmoniemusik’ pieces for light chamber wind ensembles were often performed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These works all featured a type of medieval hurdy-gurdy whose absence, nowadays, has necessitated re-working for, as today, a performance which show-cased very precise and rhythmically astute playing, with fine solo lines ending, finally, with a short, explosive rondo. This led superbly into the last work of the afternoon ... the Symphonic Variations of Dvorak as arranged, once again, by Derek Smith. Rich and full, the energetic variety of gradients, dynamics and characterful textures expressed admirably the dance moods and general ebullience of the original variations. The individual qualities of each instrument allowed the ‘tunes’ to breathe and flow and the whole gelled into a happy mixture which enticed to the invigorating end.

The Royal Welsh College’s Chamber Winds are a true ensemble. Refreshing and engaging in their youthfulness, they play with such levels of ‘togetherness’ that one can imagine them having been born, not merely brought up, ‘in sync’!

The entire programme reminded the open-minded listener that sound is sound in the here and now – whatever modifications are made to some of the original dots on the page! The original ‘script’ is not necessarily the only script – though everyone knows this is a controversial notion!

Yet again, another especially expressive, interesting and inspirational offering of superb music from ‘Espressivo’ – espressissimo!

Stella Seaton-Sims

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