United Kingdom Beethoven: Matthew, Rose, Callum, and Murray McLachlan (piano), Torbay Symphony Orchestra, Richard Gonski (conductor), Ariel Centre, Totnes, 8.10.2016 and 9.10.2016. (PRB)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 1 in C major, Op.15; Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op.19; Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op.37
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op.58; Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major, Op 73 (‘Emperor’)
Think about musical dynasties and you’ll probably come up with the Bachs, with its fifty or so musicians. Move forward a few centuries and, on a decidedly lighter note, it might just be the von Trapps, of Sound of Music fame.
Concert-pianist and pedagogue Murray McLachlan is Head of Keyboard at Manchester’s Chetham’s School of Music – the largest specialist music-school in the UK which, over the last fifty years, has established itself as a central part of music education in the country. McLachlan combines his role there with that of Senior Tutor at The Royal Northern College of Music, and is also Chair of EPTA (European Piano Teachers’ Association).
In addition, McLachlan and wife Kathryn – herself a piano-recitalist, examiner, adjudicator, and administrator – are head of a Stockport, Greater Manchester-based family, three of whom are highly-talented pianists in their own right. Eldest son Callum is 17, and started piano lessons with his father in 2007. Since then he has achieved an extraordinary range of musical distinctions – diplomas, solo and concerto performances – both here and abroad. His younger brother Matthew, 16, already has an equally impressive CV, and sister Rose, 14, looks set to follow in the same family footsteps, as well as being an accomplished organist, and previously a chorister, having both sung, and played, the latter as part of services, at Manchester Cathedral. Youngest sibling, 13-year-old Alec, is also a pianist and cellist, but unfortunately was unable to be involved on this occasion as, among his other talents, he is already a signed goalkeeper for Liverpool-based Everton Football Club, and was involved in a soccer match.
The family has recently performed all five Beethoven Piano Concertos before, but this very special weekend not only gave them an opportunity to perform with an orchestra again, but also allowed for additional activities and experiences to be incorporated into the programme.
Torbay Symphony Orchestra (TSO) is a full-sized amateur symphony orchestra which regularly performs to a wide range of audiences across South Devon. In an area where performances by the only professional orchestra – Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – inevitably involve a round-trip of almost sixty miles when they tour to the county town of Exeter. Along with their colleagues in Exeter, Plymouth and Truro, they do an invaluable job by mounting large-scale symphonic performances across the South West Peninsula. The TSO is fortunate to have at its helm, South-African-born conductor and composer Richard Gonski, acclaimed both for his studied performances of regular repertoire, as well as his forward-looking approach to contemporary music. It is largely his determination for accessibility and involvement, especially with young people, that this Beethoven Fest came about. Factor in that TSO is based in Totnes – a market-town well-known for its alternative culture, and within a few miles of Dartington – and you have the perfect mix, and venue for this unique undertaking – the Ariel Centre – a flexible, multi-use performing and visual arts facility, on the campus of the town’s King Edward VI Community College, or KEVICC, as it is known locally.
The weekend unfolded as follows. On both Saturday and Sunday morning Murray McLachlan, assisted by his wife, ran two masterclasses respectively, where pianists of varying levels had the opportunity to perform, and receive positive and encouraging feedback, in an essentially non-challenging, and thoroughly friendly setting. Additionally McLachlan gave a morning talk on Beethoven, where the number of youngsters present was most heartening, and germane to Gonski’s stated intention to attract ever-more-youthful audiences for the future. Two pre-concert talks on the concertos themselves, by McLachlan on the first night, and Rose, Matthew and Callum on the second, completed the workshop part of the proceedings, which also included a couple of open rehearsals.
As if to reinforce the essential community spirit of the whole undertaking, and given that the venue which, of course, is an integral part of a working comprehensive school by day, doesn’t have a top-quality concert-grand of its own, TSO needed to look to its nearby neighbours – Newton Abbot and District Society of Arts (NADSA) – for a solution. NADSA runs its own successful concert series and was able to hire out its Yamaha Grand for the weekend – the piano will, in fact, be back in use on its own turf when classical pianist Margaret Fingerhut takes the next recital slot in the series, in a few days’ time.
The five concertos were delivered on two successive evenings, numbers 1, 2 and 3 on the first, and 4 and 5 on the second. Given that the second concerto was actually the first in order of composition, the first three works were performed by children Rose, Matthew and Callum in age order. First out of the blocks was Matthew, who turned in a most impressive account of the First Concerto, coping with the technical difficulties with real aplomb, and especially effective in the first-movement cadenza. There was sufficient emotion when called for, but the performance was more about the young Beethoven wanting to make a name for himself as a virtuoso pianist early on in his career. A particularly impressive feature of Matthew’s playing – and, in fact, of all the pianists – was that they were so fully committed to the music, and where playing from memory made such a vital difference. If there was even the slightest lapse, it was so skilfully concealed, that only those perhaps following from the score might have picked it up, which is commensurate with the art of any true professional in a live-performance situation. All the performers benefited from the rock-solid direction, and clear beat from conductor Gonski, who ensured that the ensemble between soloist and orchestra was as well-maintained as possible. The orchestra, under the assured leadership of Chris Eastman, played their part to the very best of their ability. They are an amateur ensemble, and there will be times when things aren’t quite perfect, particularly in the quieter moments. But, true to the real meaning of the word, they appeared to love the opportunity to accompany such accomplished soloists, and it was this, rather than the odd fluff or intonation problem along the way, that shone through on both evenings.
Rose proved an equally impressive soloist in the Second Concerto, where not only were all the technical facets of the work well-studied and despatched so easily, but there was also a great emphasis on producing a ‘cantabile’ tone, and a beauty of phrasing, which perhaps emanated from her earlier experiences as a singer. Furthermore this became fascinating, as the evening unfolded, to witness the difference in each sibling’s playing and musical personality, which was not just simply down to their current teachers at the school. Callum then stepped up for the Third Concerto – an altogether different animal from its two essentially jovial and light-hearted predecessors. Couched in the darker colours of C minor – a key that tends to show Beethoven in his most extrovert and dramatic manner – it needed all the qualities that both Matthew and Rose brought to their respective concertos, but moreover the extra dimension which this particular minor-key work cries out for. In Callum’s outstanding performance it had everything – great assurance and maturity, impeccable technique, great power, yet equally subtle dynamic control in ‘pianissimos’, all in all a consummate control over the music and instrument.
As befits the head of any Scottish clan, it just left father, Murray, with the fairly daunting task of playing the last two concertos on the second evening. Again, and rather like a fine Highland Scotch, his quite superb performances of each work seemed like a complete distillation of all that had gone before, but with an added power and total sense of ease that can only mature over the years. From the sublime start of the Fourth Concerto, the ethereal quality of the slow movement, and the youthful zest of the finale, you could hardly have wanted for more. But, of course, there was still more yet to come, in a barnstorming performance of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto, which provided a most inspirational summing up of the weekend as a whole. Even in these two more-familiar works in the genre, there was always a wonderful sense of freshness and new discovery, especially in the various cadenzas in both works, and where McLachlan was able to go back, to some degree, to the original concept, where such a section might be freely improvised there and then, on the day.
Despite the immense hard work that this weekend must have occasioned, not just at the time, but in preparation, and given the travelling distances involved, too, it was such a sublime way to finish the evening, once the rippling scales at the end of the concerto had subsided, with a generous, but immensely suitable encore, in the form of Scriabin’s wonderfully-evocative Nocturne for the Left Hand, which left the audience spellbound.
If there was just one thing that stood out head and shoulders during the whole weekend, it was the McLachlans’ all-embracing generosity and willingness to share their prodigious talents with everyone, while still appearing such a normal and modern family – a truly humbling experience in every respect.
Philip R Buttall