Brighton Year-Round 2019
An evening of vocal and piano music: Donizetti, Johann Strauss II, Bartok piano music from Mikrokosmos and Suite Op 14, Handel, Gluck, Monteverdi, Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D, K311.
A song-led programme began in vivacious mode with soprano Valeria Guidotti and pianist Zhanna Kemp. Guidotti has a strong coloratura voice, an attractive sheen and effortless accuracy. Gaetano Donizetti’s ‘So anch’io la virtu magica’ (from Don Pasquale) is a skittish but very consummate bid at self-determination; quite delicious too. Guidotti can show occasional rhythmic fence-jumping, and delights in the high-wire of her virtuosity.
Following this Johann Strauss II’s ‘Frülingsstimmen’ n fact restores some of the vertiginous elements the first number licensed. But these are fine consummate performances, and happily available through the website. Kemp as ever quietly nails the accompaniment in the background.
A very different musicianship was on show in a clutch of Béla Bartok performances. Pianist Kevin Allen is famed for his Brahms, Schoenberg and his own compositions. Here he brings an armoury of modernist colour and rhythmic complexity to melodic but savage textures.
Two Pieces from Mikrokosmos comprised a comparatively limpid ‘Free Variations’ from the sixth and last book of this modern Graduum ad Parnassus. It was followed by ‘From the Diary of a Fly’ which unlike the variations is a pointilistic tour-de-force of wayward harmonies and split phrases, with a wild rubato and velocity, splintered texture and over very quickly. Allen was just warming up.
Bartok’s Suite Op 14 opens with a great soaring melody in the Allegretto, right across the keyboard. It’s fiendishly tricky underneath the simple gesture but Allen made it pretty effortless.
Even more impressive were his handlings of the inner movements, the contrasting fiendish Scherzo with its pounding repeated notes like Brahms Gypsy dance-rhythms on acid, essentially the kind of melodies he might have written had he listened more: Bartok’s saturation with Zoltan Kodaly in collecting folk material infuses this and indeed the later Mikrokosmos. It’s exhilarating, and the following Allegro molto has an agency and power too that focuses on more aleatory content.
The final Sostenuto is perilous balancing a sustained diminuendo against the long fade. It’s exposed, too easy for children, to difficult for grown ups as is said of Mozart’s piano music. Well, both. Allen’s sovereign in this territory, most completely at home in the inner movements, but clearly a pianist enlarging his repertoire in a thrilling, sometimes hair-raising manner.
Pianist Joe Ward led two singers in essentially baroque repertoire, and these were delights. Mezzo Jane Larsen began with Handel’s famous plea from the early Rinaldo ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ delivered with rapt unwinding slowness. The less familiar ‘Svegliatevi nel core’ from the familiar Guilio Cesare has the wronged Sextus plot revenge against Caesar. Larden proves strong in bth vocal projection and subtly, as she does in Gluck’s hit from Orfeo et Eurydice ‘Che faro’ where Larsen can apply pressure and passion and still project an ideal tone, never forced.
Mezzo Angela Goodall joined her for the duet finale of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea ‘Pur ti miro’ which was bewitching and fully accomplished. It’s a vertiginous number where the lovers outdo each other in mirrored ecstasy, having murdered or displaced anyone who gets in their way. Nero later kicked the pregnant Poppea to death.
And this finale of Monteverdi’s might not be by him – there’s evidence the opera – one of only three of his that have survived – might have been finished by someone else who kept in the background. Who the candidates are is obscure. Not Francisco Cavalli, Giacomo Carissimi, the very young Antonio Cesti, or the slightly older, already-famous Barbara Strozzi. It’d be delicious to find out it was her. Each composer though owns a thumb print and those who suggest another hand than Monteverdi’s haven’t come up with any candidates.
Ward as ever really gives his singers space to breathe and open up, a model of restraint and discreet support. It’s rare to get an even quality of singing with two or more singers and to have three (albeit one appearing just once) is a delight.
Mozart’s Piano Sonata D K311 owns a bright quality that Norman Jacobs brought out in a careful mostly nimble and period-aware performance that eschewed the pedal, exposing his legato even further. There were occasional rushes and moments of nervous fumbling in the opening Allegro con spirito and the Allegro Rondo finale but Jacobs is maturing as a pianist, able to compass the classical as well as late Romantic and indeed the curating of 20th century modernists. His best moments came when attention might have wandered in one of those slightly anonymous slow movements Mozart could throw up. There was a pointilistic delicacy and attention to line that rendered the Andante con expressione a gem.
Another varied evening, with the singers setting a few benchmarks and Allen in particular ferociously adventuring to fresh sonorities.