Polish Italian Duo Champions Forgotten English Composer

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Janáček, Barber, Ashton, Chopin: Evva Mizerska (cello) & Emma Abbate (piano), Sherwell Centre, Plymouth University, Plymouth. 23.3.2013 (PRB)

Beethoven: Variations on Mozart’s ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ from ‘Die Zauberflöte’, WoO 46
Janáček: Pohádka (Fairy Tale)
Barber: Cello Sonata, Op 6
Algernon Ashton: Cello Sonata No 1 in F major, Op 6
Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise Brillante, Op 3

Emma Abbate & Evva Mizerska - credit Peninsula Arts
Emma Abbate & Evva Mizerska – credit Peninsula Arts

Peninsula Arts operates from within the Faculty of Arts and serves as the arts and culture organisation for Plymouth University, the largest university in the South West of England. As part of its on-going cultural remit, it hosts a chamber-music series of regular recitals, the latest of which was given by the Polish-Italian Evva Mizerska & Emma Abbate Duo.

This cello and piano duo was formed in 2003, and has performed extensively in the UK and Europe, as well as having two world-premiere CD recordings of music by Krzysztof Meyer and Algernon Ashton respectively to its name.

Even if the weather outside felt far more like winter, the duo created a ray of spring sunshine with their performance of Beethoven’s Variations on a Theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute, which opened the recital. This was a perfectly-poised reading which finely reflected the character of the original, while never short on light-hearted playfulness, too – all in all a true dialogue between the two protagonists here, and successfully mirroring their operatic counterparts of Pamina and Papageno.

This proved an ideal light aperitif for Janáček’s Pohádka, an archetypal exemplar of Russian story-telling in music, inspired by nineteenth-century writer Vasili Zhukovsky, from the pen of a Moravian-born composer who nevertheless was also a confirmed Russophile. While Janáček categorically stated that his was not programme music as such, the duo’s playing was suitably fervent and effectively portrayed the magic of the story. There was also due regard paid to the composer’s idiosyncratic style – a musical assimilation of the rhythm, pitch contour and inflections of normal Czech speech.

Barber’s epic Sonata, which has become one of the most frequently-performed chamber works by an American composer, followed on seamlessly, with both players tackling the work’s impassioned writing with great aplomb. In such a work, especially where a good deal of the cello writing is in the resonant lower register, balance between solo instrument and piano is critical. Despite the fact that the piano was not a full-length concert-grand, the decision to keep the piano lid on the half-stick throughout the recital was well-considered. Even in the often thundering climaxes, and with Abbate’s powerful playing, the dynamic balance remained well managed.

 - credit Toccata Classics
Algernon Ashton- credit Toccata Classics

An unfamiliar composer’s name on a programme can often perhaps suggest an avant-garde work in a decidedly modern idiom. In spite of today’s propensity for resurrecting Christian names more popular in foregone eras, Algernon Bennet Langton Ashton, born in Durham in 1859 is, in fact, one of the better-kept secrets in British music, with a generous output of piano music, chamber works and songs. At the age of twenty-five, he was appointed professor of piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music, before taking a similar position at the London College of Music, where his students included William Hurlstone and William Alwyn. The well-known English composer of operas and choral music, Rutland Boughton, wrote: ‘(Ashton) seems to pour out a great musical thought as easily as the lark trills its delight in cloudland’.

Even if not stunningly inventive, there is still much to savour in his Sonata No 1 in F, a three-movement work couched firmly in the Romantic tradition. The finale bears one of Ashton’s favourite directions – ‘frescamente’ – the music must sound ’fresh or newly-minted’ and Mizerska and Abbate were clearly at one with this sentiment, in a persuasive performance that did much to promote this arguably-neglected British composer.

The Sonata can be heard on Toccata Classics’ CD: ‘Algernon Ashton – Music for Cello and Piano, Volume 1’ (TOCC 0142 (See – read Nick Barnard’s review at Music Web International.)

Given Mizerska’s Warsaw connection, it came as no surprise that the duo should choose Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante with which to end their programme. Although the composer referred to the work as ‘nothing more than a trifle for the salon, for ladies’, the piece is considerably more difficult, especially for the pianist, than Chopin’s rather disparaging description would suggest. Here again, both artists rose to their respective challenges with true panache, in a performance that so finely encapsulated the indigenous qualities of this now-stylised Polish dance-form.

A further short piece of Chopin’s, by way of a generous encore in the shape of Davydov’s delightful take on the composer’s original A minor Waltz for piano, rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable recital by these two highly talented and communicative young players.

Philip R Buttall