FringeReview UK 2018
Brighton-born violinist Eliette Harris and award-winning Pianist composer Joshua Urben from Shoreham, both study at the Royal Northern College of Music. They play a mainly late Romantic/Impressionist recital of Boulanger, Szymanowski, Debussy, Ravel, Urben himself and Bartok.
Here’s a north-south divide. Violinist Eliette Harris and composer/pianist Joshua Urben are emerging young artists from the Royal Northern College of Music, but happen to hail from Brighton and Shoreham respectively.
Harris was prominent with the Brighton Youth Orchestra and Urben’s making a name for himself as composer/arranger on ITV. There’s a shimmering intensity about Harris’ playing and Urben plays like a composer, someone who absorbs, feels along and sometimes uses the music he’s playing. There’s a crackling intensity here.
First was the centenary composer (her death) Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) the astonishingly gifted teenaged Prix de Rome winner who died at twenty-four of Crohn’s Disease days before Debussy. Her 1911 Nocturne, written when Boulanger was seventeen opens a bit like Ravel’s Habanera or Vocalese; rocking on an ostinato C. It’s veiled, hypnotic, a summer haze. Urben gently counterpoints Harris’ rapt playing here.
She explodes with a fullness and late impressionism in the first of Karol Szymanowski’s 1916 Mythes: ‘Fonatine d’Arethuse’ which cascades with waves of expressive power and a full tone only hinted at elsewhere in this recital, with the exception of the ravel alter. This was passionately projected hinting at the power to come in this artist.
Debussy’s ‘Beau Soir’ is almost as precocious as Boulanger’s Nocturne. It’s a transcription of a song written around 1877-8, when Debussy was fifteen, so younger than Boulanger and already hinting at his post-Massenet, post-Fauré musical language of a few years later. Debussy, forging a new language wasn’t as precocious as Boulanger, in the way Haydn wasn’t as precocious as Mozart, or Elgar as Britten; pioneers who establish a new musical language never can be. it’s a sliver of a piece, sweet, wispy, ideal for a still centre.
Post-Impressionism arrives in Ravel’s 1927 Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major (his first from 1897 was unearthed posthumously, so people often think there’s only one, but here the players are quite clear). Gershwin asked for lessons from Ravel. Ravel having asked what he earned said he Ravel should be taking lessons from him. ‘Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’/ He meant it: his Sonata’s drenched in Gershwin’s own absorption of jazz.
Harris goes for this with a fiery pointillism with herself and Urben observing every kick and inflection Ravel’s precise markings throw up. His flickering language needs a needle-pointed turn and this is what Harris and Urben express in the gentle Allegretto first movement. The second movement’s bluesy jazz Moderato slurs across in A flat as Harris revels in Ravel’s own disregard of his normally jewel-like notation. Harris swings her violin to a speakeasy tonkiness from Urben: it’s infectious and rightly a bit uninhibited. The i finale returns to Ravel’s world in part but its bluesy elements persist in a an almost tarantella dance rhythm that just exuberantly – stops.
Urben’s own Prelude seems amongst several things a direct hommage to a pupil of Ravel’s: the slightly older Vaughan Williams whom Ravel hugely admired partly for ‘being the only pupil who doesn’t sound like me’. The Lark Ascending (1914/20) seems yet another piece wholly apt for today’s beating June sun. The violin solo aching an ascending scale only later rippled with piano; and unlike the Lark never rising to a wild rapture begins in VW territory.
It doesn’t stay there. There’s a haunted feel to this work that for a start isn’t as fully-developed as a concert piece but does what its title suggests, ushers a world of Urben’s imagination we hear unknowingly through the medium of TV, Urben’s yet another composer (many saw one last week with Johan de Cock at All Saint’s) who’s gently asserting the right to compose tonal music in a diverse age: and re-introduce music suitable for films and gentle visual evocations into the concert world.
To date Urben’s musical language – it’s out there on SoundCloud – often begins with as gently with an unhurried unfolding, delicate effects and a piano anchor. His shorter pieces often speed up then slow to a stop, palindromically a mirror of their opening. No wonder Urben’s flourishing. He tells stories in music. He evokes briefly but is specifically telling us something.
Bartok’s six Roumanian Folk Dances were dispatched with the energy seen in the Ravel with some of Szymanowski’s exotic harmonies. Bartok was influenced by Szymanowsi and visa versa. These six pieces with Harris relishing the rough-edged folk idioms and gypsy violins, is notable for its still centre, the third ‘Upon One Note’ which does just that. Harris projects its high-wire fragility with a raptness and strength I’ve seldom seen.
A tremendous burgeoning and I hope this duo continue: Urben’s back next week for a very different recital.