United Kingdom Debussy, Poulenc and Schubert: Françoise-Green Piano Duo, Melos Sinfonia/Oliver Zeffman (conductor), St Jude’s Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 15.6.2015 (AS)
Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Poulenc: Concerto for two pianos in D minor
Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, Unfinished
This concert was part of the 23rd year of “Proms at St Jude’s”, a nine-day-long music and literary festival. The setting is perfect: St Jude’s Church is situated at one end of Central Square, a lovely formal expanse of open lawns and trees, while the beautiful early twentieth-century church is adorned with superb paintings and murals by Walter Starmer. The presence of white marquees and refreshment areas well filled with attendees enhanced the festival atmosphere, and it was a perfect summer evening.
St Jude’s possesses an excellent acoustic for an orchestral concert, but as in the case of many churches, the sightlines are not so good if you are sitting in the body of the nave. As part of their generally excellent administrative arrangements the organisers had overcome this problem by installing screens on which you could clearly see the performers. The images weren’t static: a skilled visual production team was clearly at work, with camera operators showing shots that had obviously been worked out beforehand with reference to the musical scores.
The London-based Melos Sinfonia draws its players from students and recent graduates of British and European Union conservatoires and universities. Its founder and conductor, Oliver Zeffman, is himself a 22-year-old Durham University undergraduate. As we heard in a beautifully shaped, finely played performance of Debussy’s Faune, the orchestra is a fine body of young players – only a few horn burbles at one or two points in the evening suggested a less than top-class ensemble – and Oliver Zeffman is a sensitive, highly accomplished conductor. Rosie Gallagher was outstanding in her flute solo at the beginning of the piece.
Antoine Françoise and Robin Green have been playing as a piano duo since 2008. They gave a most remarkable performance of Poulenc’s Double Concerto. Their ensemble was extraordinarily immaculate – at every point two minds and two sets of fingers played as if there were one person. This was particularly remarkable given the zest and freedom of expression they brought to the outer movements, and the gentle poetry of their playing in the central Larghetto movement. Ensemble between soloists and orchestra was pretty well perfect. As an encore pianists and orchestra played two numbers from Saint-Saëns’s Le carnival des animaux. What a pity it is that this delicious and once popular work is seldom played now – it’s obviously too frivolous. It was perhaps a bit naughty of the piano duo deliberately to come unstuck in the scales of ‘Pianistes’, but order was restored with a crisp xylophone solo in ‘Fossiles’, performed by the versatile Laura Bradford, who later played the timpani in Schubert’s symphony.
In that symphony Zeffman balanced the first movement’s structure skilfully and satisfyingly, with the exposition repeat taken. He chose a good, flowing basic tempo, and contrasted the ruminative and dramatic aspects of Schubert’s inspiration particularly well. He took the second movement exactly as the score indication of Andante con moto suggests, gently but with good momentum and a strong underlying pulse, and there were some particularly fine solo clarinet and oboe contributions from Anthony Friend and Henry Clay respectively. It was quite daring of Zeffman to finish his concert with quiet music, but the rapt atmosphere that prevailed at the end of the symphony was an effective reward for both the conductor and his audience.