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S & H Recital Review

Ysaÿe, McCabe, Bartók, S. Harrison, Rawsthorne Peter Sheppard Skærved, Philippa Mo (violins), Leighton House, Friday, May 7th, 2004 (CC)

A whole evening of music for two violins is a fairly daunting thought, especially for non-violinists. All credit, then, to Peter Sheppard Skærved and Philippa Mo for providing a well-contrasted programme that seemed thought provoking and exciting in equal measure.

The first point to note is that the work by Ysaÿe was a British première. Written in 1915, the Great War obviously acted as something of a catalyst for inspiration for the composer, particularly in the folksy finale where there is a fluency of thought coupled with a real immediacy of emotive intent. The Franckian, descending lines made a real impression. The Bachian Lento that started the work too is an impressive statement.

The acoustic of the concert room at Leighton House did not help, however. Anyone who thought (as, I must confess, did) that this was going to be tame stuff and easy on the ear (in decibel terms) was to be proved well and truly wrong: the volume was remarkably loud on occasion. But what proved interesting in performance terms were the differences between the two players. Philippa Mo has a lovely warm sound in the lower register that can turn remarkably dark; she possesses a silky-smooth legato. Sheppard Skærved is shriller of tone, a player of remarkable confidence who sometimes does get rather carried away.

One of two World Premieres in this programme followed next: John McCabe’s Spielend (2003 in McCabe’s own notes; 2004 in the programme running-order). This is playing in the sense of sport as well as instrumental performance, in a work whose slow middle section includes an intense fugue. It lasts around a quarter of an hour, according to the programme notes (12 minutes here). For all its skill and wide frame of reference (not only fugue, but reminiscences of Poulenc’s Violin Sonata, plus some fairly minimalist gestures to kick off with), it is not a work that will remain in the memory for long.

Book 4 of Bartók’s Duos (1931) provided marvellously varied terrain, all imbued with this composer’s individual stamp. This is exactly the repertoire Sheppard Skærved and Mo excel in, be it the poignant clashes of the Praeludium or the earthy dance numbers.

If there was a link between the Bartók and the Harrison it came in the infectious nature of the dance references. Sadie Harrison’s works have impressed before, both in the extended Light Garden Trilogy and in the set of solo piano pieces impresa amorosa. Harrison seems to take much inspiration from the more mystical side of her reading, and the performance was accompanied by a quotation from ‘The Magus or Celestial Intelligencer’ by Francis Barrett (1801) which refers to the twenty eight Mansions of the moon. The present work, The Vision of Anne Catherine Emmerick, in fact comes from a larger piece entitled ... under the circle of the Moon .. . Interestingly, the title spells the surname ‘Emmerick’, the first movement (which is of the same title) ‘Emmerich’ (not necessarily a typo as it may be an alternative spelling). The third movement is a Western interpretation of Eastern thought (‘Brahmin’s Angels .. Indra’s thunderbolt .. Vaivasvata’s Ark’ - a similar meeting of East and West is encountered in Harrison’s Light Garden Trilogy). The last movement, ‘The Curse with Turtledoves’ seems to confirm the essentially lyrical basis of Harrison’s thought; the third movement (‘Brahma’s Angels’) refers to the dance (and thus brought about the Bartok link mentioned above).

Its seven aphoristic movements explore in masterly fashion a world of half-lights and references (including pastiche). More of this composer needs to make it to disc so that more considered appreciation of her scores is possible for the general listener.

Finally, Alan Rawsthorne’s Theme and Variations (1918) began in capricious vein (quite a contrast). The sixth variation, ‘Notturno’, impressed most, with its background of quiet trills and its sure use of the drama that silence can afford in a live situation. Perhaps not as memorable as the Harrison, but a fine way to conclude the programme nonetheless. Two Dances by David Matthews, ‘Pastorale’ and ‘Contra-Pastorale’ (or ‘Nice and Nasty’ as Sheppard Skærved put it) rounded things off nicely (David Matthews is a fine composer whose music deserves more exposure, I always think).

Colin Clarke



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