Nature or nurture? A debate that has raged for years; and to which I can proffer no simple solutions. Personally, I have a well-developed love of British ‘classical’ music mingled with my very essence, my marrow: one that dominates, but does not supersede. And, although my mum – my greatest musical influence, by far – also adores many of the same works (a youthful passion expressed in the huge pile of Frank Bridge pieces that currently resides on the bookcase behind my newly-arrived piano); her lifelong worship is directed at the altar of nineteenth-century opera (an art-form that I simply cannot abide). As we have grown older, we have therefore attended fewer and fewer of the same performances: although there is still a sizable overlap in the Venn diagram of our tastes. Perhaps it is, in reality, a matter of time, of age, of the period, the font of musical development in which you were baptized?
Yestereve’s concert programme – because (rather than despite) of its being built on the bedrock of JS Bach (although cemented with just a hint of my proud Liverpudlian heritage) – therefore satisfied many of my cravings for that strange blend of emotion, reserve and levity that only composers with boots deeply coated in our small island’s pastoral soil seem able to provide. Of course, it helped that the Orchestra of the Swan was, tonight, typically British (English, even) in structure – consisting only of twenty-one string players – a medium which seems to have inspired and generated some of the greatest compositions from these shores (and whose orchestral scores monopolize the shelf above my inherited collection of piano pieces).
[Hold that thought for a moment. Let it maturate, whilst I fail to build a cohesive argument for its validity….]
So, there I was, observing, in rehearsal, the intense slow movement of Bach’s Piano Concerto No.1, BWV 1052 (please read yesterday’s review for a more detailed appraisal) with Thomas Nickell; and I was struck, inwardly, by three things. Firstly, that, despite (or because of) my previous almost-microscopic reservations, Nickell was obviously developing (later confirmed by his rightfully proud, but modest, father), right in front of my eyes, into the rôle of soloist-who-is-also-just-another-member-of-the-ensemble (here, slightly smaller, tighter forces; and therefore, as pianist, a yet more important, fundamental component). Secondly, it was reassuring – although he is obviously in possession of a musical memory as prodigious as his keyboard talents – to see the score open, for reference, in front of him: confirmation, for me, that he acknowledges how crucial the frequent stops and starts, the canny comments from conductor and colleagues, are in finessing his part in any public performance. Thirdly, his astute interpretation of this heavenly, yet resolutely sad Adagio sparked a longing in me to hear him play Mozart in a similar fashion: sonatas and concertos. I am certain that his combination of innate passion and natural technique (which I rattled on about so much in Cheltenham) would produce something very special.
Later, in performance, this central movement was rendered truly enthralling. Somehow refreshed, it seemed to extend and heighten the desolate bliss even of the previous night’s graceful encounter. Not only had Nickell quickly adapted to the change of acoustics and collaborators; but conductor David Curtis responded in kind by bringing the orchestra to its conclusion, with a finger raised to his lips, in the most hushed, just-audible-enough-to-make-your-spine-crumble, ethereal whisper. (I think time may have halted, momentarily – and this was not the first instance.)
The energetic – yet still resolutely mournful – outer Allegros were, as in the previous performance, equally accomplished. Yet it is this wraith-like, shadowy portion of the concerto which continues to haunt.
The next piece to be rehearsed – definitely a case of skateboarding from the sublime to the something-else… – was Steve Martland’s utterly original – and as crisp and fresh as a newly-plucked grape – arrangement of Bach’s famous (see yesterday’s Fantasia reference) Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565: which was to open the evening.
I know the original organ work all too well: having learned it by heart whilst being taught how to murder the new (and magnificent, seemingly-jet-powered) organ in Blackburn Cathedral (a real weapon of, er, mass destruction, in my wrong hands); as well as from practising it quasi-religiously when choirmaster (and last-resort accompanist) at a nearby rural parish church.
If Elgar’s transcription for full orchestra of the Fantasia and Fugue in C minor is all about squeezing every drop of awesomeness from modern symphonic forces (however subtly, at times); then this almost polar opposite is concerned with creating distinct layers of crystalline clarity – breaking apart the original’s sometimes complex structure and dense counterpoint, and simply letting it all breathe. It exemplifies Curtis’ trademark use of space (and silence) between passages, as well as each instrument’s lines and rhythms: “But heard, half heard, in the stillness Between the two waves of the sea.” (Although what sounded like snap – or Bartók – pizzicatos – not dissimilar in aural, and physical, effect to whip-cracks: stopping you in your tracks… – at one point prompted grins all-round!)
There is immense beauty, though, in Martland’s sometimes icy sparseness (a sort of steely evolution of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, and such a radical divergence from the original instrument’s overwhelming tendency to blur and befuddle): with delicate soaring filigrees interspersed with shattering, cumulative elemental power. (Was that a reference to Jaws, menacing us from the double-basses?!) And it was a wonderful, necessary, waking shock both to my somewhat somnolent midsummer’s afternoon listlessness, and my rusty comprehension of how the familiar can be rendered so astoundingly invigorating (as well as invigoratingly astounding). The result: another (slightly bonkers, admittedly; but there’s nothing wrong with that!) bejewelled example of the orchestrator’s intelligent art (and, also, may I suggest, of this sceptred isle’s predilections). Additionally, despite (or, again, because) of its hidden complexities, and the resultant graft (some of its rhythmical tripping puzzles are Bach’s own: that opening is just as difficult on the keyboard), it is perfectly suited to Curtis and OOTS: who, of course, dazzled us with their energetic shrewdness, perfect timing, and satisfied glee.
This was such an apposite piece with which to open the evening: signalling the connections between ancient and modern (one could even say between European and British) music and traditions in a way that I don’t think anything else could (not even the previous night’s Elgarian feast; and certainly not for such compact forces). It paved the way for not only Bach’s concerto – immediately before the interval – but especially the jaw-dropping, impassioned masterpieces that were to follow.
Talking of challenging openings (and masterpieces): the first notes of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (yes, him again) – surely one of the greatest works of its kind (and written in a matter of weeks) – is a stunner! (And so are all the variations that follow… – this is an immensely difficult and complex work to pull off: requiring huge, sustained levels of concentration and ability from every single player.)
Back in our seats after twenty minutes basking in the evening sun, it was noticeable that Curtis had created a larger space than normal around himself: room to manoeuvre. And it soon became apparent why. In a nutshell, this was the performance of a lifetime: directed with some huge sweeping gestures. I know I keep on declaiming just how wonderful the Orchestra of the Swan are… – which is undoubtedly true… – but, even for them, this was a revelation. Perpetual perfection – however, whichever way you wish to measure it.
You could say, certainly, that such is OOTS’ daily olive-and-walnut bread and organic unpasteurised sea-salted goat’s butter: an impeccable combination of individually exciting ingredients; and a demonstration of their collective intelligence; cohesive dynamics (from the most powerful pianississimi to surprisingly fragile fortississimi…); tempi as precise as any Swiss chronometer (yet as changeable as the British weather…); that rare ability to convey absolutely any sensibility; and to prevail successfully upon music of absolutely any genre. (That the second violins and violas are also capable of doing such a magical, massed impression of a George Formby convention going full-out, only adds to the appeal!)
What really renders all this so magnetic, so utterly irresistible, though – that distinctive ‘device’ which pulls it all together; and clothes it in glory – is their genuine, openly-communicated relish: making all that hard work and extended development of superhuman skill appear a distant memory for them; and thus disappear completely for us. It just is what it is.
This is a joyous, skilful work – with some almost numinous changes of mood – yet full of the confidence and bright-eyed visions of youth: resulting in soundscapes that could only be Britten’s. (Think Peter Grimes, and its conjuring of the sea’s tempers; or The Turn of the Screw, and its constrained instrumentation.) He was twenty-three when he wrote this; and yet it punches with a maturity that demonstrates how some rare artists appear to emerge fully-formed. (As Peter Donohoe recently said, typically, when asked about the wisdom and full-blown individuality that contributes so much to the concertos and symphonies composed in Mozart’s teenage years: “He was born old!”)
Which, of course, neatly segues into a paean to the evening’s young soloist. (Again, my previous long-form review of his UK début probably tells you all you need to know… – but, as with my tendency to judge drama, I believe repeated viewings are necessary before establishing any true attempt at a final verdict. It also helps if you have a slightly different perspective: so, this time, I sat at the pointy end of the piano: concentrating on the sound, rather than the visuals.)
As with that first concert, the Bach could be seen simply as a wonderful warm-up for Nickell (although no less moving and impressive for that). This second evening’s climax – and most brilliant highlight (even after the Britten) – was a performance of David Matthews’ scintillating, personal, soulful, engrossing, charismatic, meaningful, heartrendingly handsome and harmonious Piano Concerto, Op.111 – and with the genial composer present: for both concert and rehearsals. (Much of that string of adjectives, by the way, not only applies to the work, but the performers, as well.)
This was the perfect companion and successor to the Britten (possibly because there is a lineage of tutorship/apprenticeship which traces directly back to Bridge) – especially with its passages of soaring, modern romanticism; contrasted with not only fantastic moments of wit – especially that too-short Tango (which, somehow, provoked a huge waterfall of weeping with its implicit humanity) – but an intense warmth.
Matthews’ integration of the piano with the extensive, and extending, stretching string orchestra accompaniment not only demonstrates how a musical form that has been around for centuries can be so incredibly relevant and contemporary; but can also give rise to an extensive, forceful, yet inclusive and immersive, beauty. I felt enveloped in its joy; pierced by its soulfulness. The bluesy Elegy – which included some sumptuous tear-jerking solo string playing; as well as crashing waves of virtuosity, and a growing rich, heartfelt melodiousness, from Nickell – grabbed me astonishingly hard (even after the impact of the moody ‘dance’ which preceded it). And it will be a long time before it lets go….
The last effusive, melodious movement provided a little relief. But, still sobbing – happiness and sadness in equal measures – all I wanted was immediately for those incredible assembled forces to play it again…. They had rewarded the composer – and us – with at least as persuasive a performance as it warranted. That such a prominent composer as Matthews entrusted the promotion of such a glorious work to Nickell – who it fitted perfectly; and who will, next weekend, give its landmark London première, again with OOTS – is a demonstration of just how briskly and surely the young pianist gains acceptance amongst more experienced musicians.
I think not only that I am about to demolish my opening argument, but also that, unless you base your conclusions solely on a composer’s birthplace, it would be difficult to categorize this tour de force in any way as purely ‘British’… – although, in my defence, there is that fantastic string writing! Not that it matters. This is simply Matthews at his transcendent best; and it is no surprise that the work has already been committed to CD. It has, for me – as I listen to it again as I write – an innate longevity: born of that “warmth”; and which seems to express a true representation of the man himself.
So, you may ask – after two such intoxicating concerts – what are my conclusions with regards to Nickell…?
Well, before I go on, let me just interrupt myself momentarily: and say (tongue ever so slightly in cheek) that if his mere presence is sufficient to raise both orchestras to such stratospheric heights (ones which they are obviously capable of reaching on their own, in all seriousness – but every catalyst helps…), then, probably I should utter no more. (Listen instead to both audiences’ loud approbation – especially in response to his Gershwin encore: yesterday even more accomplished; and yet, somehow, more relaxed… – which literally speaks, shouts volumes. This should not be the only measure of his talent and eminence, though.)
In all reality, as I wrote yesterday, there can be no contradicting the fact that his “mastery of the keyboard – however effortless and limpid in appearance – is not in doubt”. He also, in my view, crucially plays with both heart and mind – something, from my experience, that is unusual in someone so young. This, I think, stems from the fact that he is one of those exceptional (and exceptionally rare) people who has discovered – and so early on in life – that he is actually rather good at something he truly loves doing. Combine this with opportunity, and a willingness (even an overwhelming desire and drive) to stay focused on that one “thing” – not only for his own satisfaction; but so that he can venture out into the world, exploring and learning, and sharing meaning and delight as he goes – and you have all the elements necessary to flourish, to succeed.
Teenagers are supposed to rage against the world with vitriol and angst (or so I am told) – but his emotions (and the way they are so skilfully conveyed) appear (and sound) much, much more broadly-developed than that: in parallel with his indubitable technique and insight. If I finish by writing sincerely that I feel blessed and privileged to have been present at the beginning of a career that I am sure will develop further dimensions – whilst bringing a concomitant fullness to those dimensions – then I am sure you can see that those “elements” are not only all present and correct (at least from my perspective); but that they are already beginning to align: to form a constellation that will only continue to grow in magnitude and brightness.
Not only do I wish him success; but I hope that all he dreams of, one day becomes his reality. He truly deserves nothing less.