Friday, 13 May 2016

PREVIEW: Prestigious Double Concerto Series with Tamsin Waley-Cohen – Forum Theatre, Malvern (Wednesday, 25 May 2016, at 19:45)

Selected by Birmingham’s Town Hall Symphony Hall as the British nomination for the prestigious European Concert Hall Organisation’s Rising Stars programme in the 2016/17 season, Tamsin has been described by The Times as a violinist “who held us rapt in daring and undaunted performances” and by The Guardian as a performer of “fearless intensity”.

Certainly not just once in a lifetime – but, nonetheless, remarkably infrequently – an artist crosses your path who completely redefines your definition of the possible. Such occurrences, therefore, rise easily to the surface of your mind, unbidden; and, in my case, can be counted on the fingers of one hand:

  • Maurizio Pollini playing Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces as an encore at the Edinburgh Festival…. These pieces suddenly emerged, butterfly-like, from their atonal cocoon, as the most beautiful ever written. (I was on the front row, trying not to cry. Having just learned to play them – yet not in any way like this… – it felt like the most personal of messages.)
  • My much-missed friend, Michael Rippon, shredding every sinew in his body (and mine) – stretching his Rembrandt-like features, and remarkably sonorous voice, to the limits (and possibly beyond) – projecting (the also much-missed) Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King with such savage, yet empathetic intensity, accompanied by the composer’s own group, The Fires of London. I had not known that music could be made to do this: to transcend the bounds of theatre and emotional evisceration. Never before or since has such a work hurt so much… – and yet delighted me with its commitment and originality.
  • Marin Alsop unleashing the full powers of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Elgar’s Second Symphony. I was sat behind the brass and percussion. The balance was therefore so very wrong. But, finally, finally, I knew that this was how this greatest of symphonies must be performed. (That I got a hug from Alsop, subsequently, for weeping from first bar to last, only reinforces the memory, of course. But she is the only conductor I know – apart from David – who personally thanks every single member of the orchestra, afterwards: wandering the stage with a smile and that sincere personal touch.)
  • Finally, of course, I have to mention David again… – but with the Cheltenham Symphony Orchestra – digging hard and deep into the very heart of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony…

…the brass-less Largo, which “is the work’s emotional core” – “one of the most despairing pieces of music ever written, a memorial for Mother Russia and all those sent to the labour camps”…. I think it is as close to the surface, and as close as you can get, to reading Shostakovich’s true intent: his fear and agonized despondency – even his hatred….
     All I need write is that I closed my eyes; and let the music immerse me in the inevitable purity of sorrow; the inescapable sobs gently washing and wracking my face…. The pace was perfect; as were the dynamics. I will jump to the end, therefore, and just say that those concluding ethereal harmonics from the harp are tough enough – for both audience and orchestra – without the following building Blitzkrieg chord from the full forces of the brass, woodwind and timpani which set off that last, knife-twisting lurch toward death. Thankfully, Curtis paused.

There is one singular moment, though, missing from the above list. And it was transitory – not even any real sort of performance… – just a few glowing notes:

And then it gets really serious. We have a break – an opportunity to relax; or to stay on stage, and repeat those tricky bits. Also, Tamsin – tonight’s soloist in the Tchaikovsky; and OOTS Associate Artist – arrives; and brings yet another smile to the assembly of collegiate happiness; as well as the unique, stunning, soul-piercing sound of that 1721 ex-Fenyves Stradivarius violin, repeating phrases of the concerto as plangent, almost ferocious, warm-up exercises….

I have never been a massive fan of the solo violin repertoire. (My instrument is the piano: its repository of wonder therefore comes first; closely followed by the haunting tenors of bassoon and cello.)

Those pieces therein that I truly love betray more my adoration of their composers: Elgar’s under-appreciated, glistening sonata, and (in the composer’s own words) “awfully emotional” concerto; Bach’s sublime Concerto for Two Violins; and, of course, Vaughan Williams’ transcendental The Lark Ascending – although, until I first heard Tamsin play this with the Orchestra of the Swan, I have to admit to considering it a little trite – probably because of its massive popularity and outward beauty. (I am such a snob.)

There is, of course, so much more to this work than that sweet veneer: and The Guardian, with its depiction of Tamsin’s “fearless intensity”, is probably the key to unlocking it. For someone so young (from my grey-bearded perspective), her emotional maturity astonishes – as does her transparent technique. That she converted me (albeit with a little help from David and OOTS), also, to an enthusiast for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, is nothing short of miraculous!

If I had to sum up the performance in two words – one for the soloist, one for the orchestra – they would be ‘ferocity’ and ‘balance’….
     Waley-Cohen brings both ferocious intelligence and emotion to the stage. The first movement, in particular, was one of great contrast: with both incredible power and gauze-like delicacy on display. In the Andante, she then demonstrated a lyrical sensibility second to none. Her communication with – and obvious admiration of – the orchestra came into its own, though, in the final Allegro vivacissimo. Her rapport with Curtis was also quite staggering….
     She is never afraid to play quietly: knowing that the orchestra’s large numbers are no indication of its transcendent accompanying subtlety. She is also willing to become an integral part of their limpid texture – an equal member – when necessary; and the joy she displayed – inbetween all that praiseworthy fireworks and tracery – when observing them at work, I believe demonstrates both generosity and a keen appreciation of their skills.
     Thus a work I had never really admired before now spoke volumes: its flow insinuating itself deep within me. This was a great, very special, utterly exceptional performance. And the rapturous reception said so much more than any of my words ever can.

One of the other violin pieces I am rapidly beginning to take to heart is – and you can, of course, blame this on the composer again – Vaughan Williams’ startling, Stravinskyesque, “oh-too-rarely-aired” Violin Concerto in D minor. This is the remaining half of the “only two pieces for the solo violin and orchestra [composed] during his lifetime… written in 1925 when Vaughan Williams was fifty-three years of age. While The Lark Ascending is frequently performed all over the world, the Violin Concerto in D Minor is little known in the repertoire and is rarely played today…” – which is incredibly disappointing (and not a little sad).

Unlike [the] concertos of Bartok and Prokofiev, the [concerto] is not a virtuosic piece, yet it gives us a chance to inhale a full scent of the twentieth century’s violin concerto repertoire. This exhaustive coverage of various styles from different periods is especially appealing….
     In many ways, [it] exemplifies a model of Vaughan Williams’ instrumental compositional style at a particular moment of the twentieth century. It is an eclectic work, a compactly-formed mixture of neo-classicism, folk-dance rhythms, and triadic harmony. As aptly articulated by James Day, “[Vaughan Williams] grafted of new stock on to old stems with an English musical language.”

I described Tamsin as “blasting superbly (and thoughtfully – if that’s not a contradiction in terms)” through this, on her superb recording with OOTS. And I’m confident you can expect the same at Malvern!

She will be finishing the evening with Mendelssohn’s famous Violin Concerto in E minor – the concert beginning with his Incidental Music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – neither of which really needs an introduction or analysis from me! However, you can see Tamsin talking – with great delight – about the former on YouTube; and the following review, by Richard Bratby, gives a strong flavour of the intense quality (and, perhaps, epiphany) you will experience on the night:

When Tamsin Waley-Cohen came on to play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Curtis and the OOTS were at the top of their game: ardent, poetic, and keenly responsive to Waley-Cohen’s fantastical, gorgeously-coloured solo performance. Waley-Cohen doesn’t just produce a radiant, singing tone when letting the melody stream out – though she certainly did that, shaping Mendelssohn’s opening solo like a song without words, and inflecting it with little portamenti and tiny, natural touches of rubato.
     But she makes a gloriously warm and eloquent sound at the quietest dynamics, too. As the slow movement ended she seemed to weave golden tracery against the woodwind’s twilit chords. And throughout, she played as if she had something intimate and wholly sincere to communicate. It’s unreservedly good news that, as the OOTS’s Associate Artist, we’ll be hearing a lot more of Tamsin Waley-Cohen this season.

(Photographs by Patrick Allen)

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