Having declared that I intended to “do less” in 2017 to focus on more academic activities, my concert-going has been as busy as ever, and I have enjoyed some really fine performances in the first quarter of 2017. St John’s Smith Square (SJSS), now my favourite venue alongside the Wigmore Hall, is proving a rich source of fine music – solo piano recitals, chamber and choral music. It really is a wonderful place – easy to get to (within walking distance of Vauxhall, Victoria and Westminster stations), with friendly helpful staff and a welcoming atmosphere. Do seek it out if you haven’t already discovered it.
My first visit of 2017 to SJSS was for the first of chamber ensemble’s I Musicanti’s three-concert series. The finest chamber musicians brought together by double bassist and conductor Leon Bosch in programmes which feature well-known works (Schubert’s ‘Trout’ quintet was in the first concert) alongside lesser-known repertoire and new works by South African composers, these programmes (I have now been to two) are intriguing and satisfying, and beautifully presented (review here). The second concert in the series, in March, featured guitarist Craig Ogden, whose genial presence on stage lent an atmosphere of “music at home” to the little-known Terzetto for Violin, Cello and Guitar by Paganini. The highlight of this concert, for me, was the premiere of a new work by Werner Bosch (no relation to Leon Bosch) which contained many melodic, rhythmic and emotional idioms which reminded me of Schubert, whose little-known Quartet in G D96 for guitar, flute, viola and cello followed it. The final concert in this series is on 28th May and includes Mozart’s evergreen Clarinet Quintet in A K581, Schubert’s good-natured Octet in F D803, and the world premiere of a new work by David Earl viola and double bass. Do try and get to this concert to enjoy high-quality chamber music in a most convivial and warm atmosphere.
A return visit to SJSS for a sparkling two-piano concert by husband-and-wife duo Tamara Stefanovich and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who presented two mighty musical edifices in one thrilling programme. I went for the Messiaen, but the Brahms was revealing too, and before the concert I met a composer whose thoughtful minimalist music will be reviewed shortly on this site.
The previous evening I ventured outside my usual comfort zone of piano music to attend a concert by the Elysian Singers at SJSS. One of the UK’s leading chamber choirs, the Elysian Singers have a reputation for adventurous programmes, and their 28th January concert featured music by English composers Elgar and Holst, a new work by Judith Weir (current Master of the Queen’s Music), Bruckner, Bernstein’s vibrant Chichester Psalms (somewhat marred by an out of tune solo cellist), Vaughan Williams, Holst, Elgar and Stravinsky. The common thread was psalms: the choir has been celebrating its 30th anniversary with “PsalmFest 2016”, a year-long series of concerts in which they performed settings of all of the 150 psalms. The concert at SJSS was the culmination of this impressive feat and the programme demonstrated the wide variety and imagination which composers bring to settings of the Psalms in their responses to the language and meaning of each one. This was an uplifting and engaging concert. The works by Bernstein and Stravinksy were undoubtedly the highlights, sung with great commitment and evident enjoyment by the Elysian Singers, but there were some other new discoveries in the programme and I particular enjoyed the Holst setting of Psalm 86.
Another piano recital at SJSS which proved most absorbing was a lunchtime concert by Mishka Rushdie Momen (winner of the Dudley International Piano Competition). The concert opened with Mozart at his most melancholy and introspective – the dark yet achingly lyrical Rondo in A minor K511. It’s one of my favourite works by Mozart, or indeed anyone, and Mishka’s sensitive, thoughtful response to the unsettled character of this music highlighted its many wonders. This was followed by Schumann’s first piano sonata. Rarely performed (this was my introduction to it), it was dedicated to his beloved Clara Wieck “from Florestan and Eusebius”, his alter egos. He described this dramatic work to her as “a cry from my heart to yours”, and it is replete with secret messages to her using her ‘theme’ of a falling scale of five notes. Mishka acute sense of pacing and her varied dynamic palette brought this wonderful piece alive with drama and affection. Two pieces by Albeniz concluded the concert, transporting us to Spain for warm sunshine and holiday rhythms.
Finally, for this quarter’s concerts, a performance of Bach’s magisterial St Matthew Passion by the Armonico Consort and Baroque Orchestra, with Ian Bostridge as guest soloist. Lively tempi, fine diction from the singers and some commendable performances from soloists within the choir created a performance which had much dramatic drive. The orchestra plays period instruments and the muted, warm sound lent an intimacy to this sprawling work. Ian Bostridge’s Evangelist was passionate, emotive and committed, and his performance rather put the others in the shade, though special mentions should be made of counter-tenor Joseph Bolger and Andrew Davies’s lyrical understated Christus.