Spells and Ceremonies: A Farewell to British Piano Festival 2015


   Robert Matthew-Walker, Howard Ferguson, Ian Venables, Vaughan Williams, John Ireland: Mark Bebbington, Rebeca Omordia, Sofia Sarmento and students, Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire. Birmingham, 16.6.2015 (RB)


Robert Matthew-Walker: Fantasy-Sonata: ‘Hamlet’ (Piano Sonata No.3) Op.3
Howard Ferguson: Bagatelles
William Lloyd Webber: Three Spring Miniatures
Ian Venables: Three pieces for violin and piano
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Suite de Ballet (flute and piano)
John Ireland: Scarlet Ceremonies; Sarnia; The Island Spell

The last concert of the Festival drew on the musicianship of students, graduates and teaching staff of the Conservatoire.

Mark Bebbington was on-stage first with a major piano sonata by living British composer Robert Matthew-Walker. The Fantasy-Sonata: ‘Hamlet’ (Piano Sonata No.3) Op.34 seems determined through its title to be rejecting modernism. The Shakespearean subject-matter suggests Liszt and the Fantasy-Sonata perhaps Scriabin or Medtner. Then you are reminded that it was written in 1980 for the Buxton Festival. In fact it turned out for much of its duration (perhaps about 18 mins) to be quite tough – with the Payne the toughest of the works in a festival programme predominantly tonal-melodic. It was (it seems) played again at the end of the day because the composer had been delayed. I missed that and Ireland’s Island Spell which was to have been played by Peck Yoon Leong. As for Matthew-Walker, do look him up in Wikipedia. He has written a lot with an opus-numbered work-list running to 148 written between 1953 and 2010. There are symphonies (8), cello concertos and string quartets and a lot else. The Sonata, written in the same year as his Meditation on the Death of Elvis Presley (he has written two Presley biographies) had its beatific moments towards the end but otherwise seemed suitably freighted with dark portents. It reminded me from time to time of the Shostakovich Prelude and Fugues, yet with more modernistic, collage-like and less ingratiating tendencies. That said, the sonata ends very movingly indeed: Ophelia’s fate would have benefited by being heard again.

Next came the Five Bagatelles of that less-prolific composer, Howard Ferguson. They have been recorded before including a very early pioneering set of 78s by Myra Hess who also recorded Ferguson’s more ambitious melodramatic – even lurid – Piano Sonata. Hoylin Yeoh had these pieces well under her fingers and impressed me with the hypnotic Molto moderato (IV) and the Mayerl-inflected Allegro scherzando (III).

The first part of the concert concluded with the playing of Rebeka Omordia – an alumnus of the Conservatoire who played without a score. The light-as-down Macdowell-style Three Spring Miniatures by William Lloyd Webber were followed, with hardly a breath for applause, by an extraordinarily empowered reading of John Ireland‘s Scarlet Ceremonies. She flew at this tremolo-demented piece liked an elemental. I doubt the piece has ever been treated with such possessed virtuosity – it sounded like war-time Prokofiev at times. I hope that Omordia records an Ireland selection including the Sonata, Ballade, Decorations and the Channel Isles-inspired pieces. With the Howells Clarinet Sonata (Luke English) from Monday night this was one of the highlights of the Festival. We need to hear more from Ms Omordia. Record companies pay heed.

After the interval Ruta Labutyte and Guy Murgatroyd played the Three Pieces for violin and piano by Ian Venables. These are fine scores in a very accessible English pastoral style but they could have been presented in a more eloquent and flowing style. They seemed quite marked out and effortful at times. The Vaughan Williams Suite de Ballet for flute and piano came from David Westcombe and Francisco Carey. These nicely pointed pieces communicated well but again did not communicate with total ease. Lastly (for me) there came that glorious triptych Sarnia – An Island Sequence by John Ireland. This major piece of music was adeptly played by Advanced Professional Postgraduate Diploma student Sofia Sarmento.

This concert was supported by the John Ireland Charitable Trust.


Rob Barnett

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