An Apollo Saal recital for piano and harmonium duo is a lovely Berlin evening

27/11/2019

GermanyGermany Rossini, Guilmant, Debussy, Franck, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Tom Scott, and Dukas: Jonathan Scott (harmonium), Tom Scott (piano). Apollo Saal, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 26.11.2019 (MB)

Rossini, arr. J Scott: Il barbiere di Siviglia: Overture
Debussy, arr. J Scott: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Alexandre Guilmant: Scherzo in D minor, op.31; Ariane, op.53: ‘Adagio’ and ‘Danse des songes’
Franck: Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op.16
Saint-Saëns, arr. J Scott: Danse macabre
Saint-Saëns: Six Duos, Op.8: ‘Fantasia e fuga’
Gounod, arr. J Scott: Méditation – Ave Maria
Tom Scott: Dances for harmonium and piano
Dukas, arr. J Scott: L’Apprenti sorcier

It is not every day one hears a recital for piano and harmonium duo; still less often, I suspect, might one hear such a recital in which novelty of combination and sonority takes second place to captivating quality of performance. Here with arrangements and no fewer than four pieces written originally for the combination were the Scott Brothers Duo, Tom on piano and Jonathan on harmonium, the latter a new Mustel instrument acquired by the Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

A Rossini overture will always prove, performance permitting, a sparkling way to open a concert. Performance here permitted — and it proved an excellent choice in accustoming our ears and, more generally, expectations. The introduction alternated between piano and harmonium playing in concert, sometimes doubled and sometimes complementary, and antiphonal writing, Jonathan Scott’s arrangement here as elsewhere skilful, catching, indeed beguiling. His registration choices proved imaginative without eccentricity and balance never proved a problem in the slightest. Rossini’s music put a smile on one’s face, as it should. Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is a different kettle of fish, to put it mildly, but Scott’s arrangement proved just as adept. The opening flute solo swelled on his instrument, answered with piano arpeggios. Taken through various, often magical transformations, this was quite an ear-opener, again for the quality of the performances more than the novel instrumentation.

A piece for harmonium solo followed, Alexandre Guilmant’s post-Mendelssohnian Scherzo in D minor, Op.31. As fleet as imaginable in performance, Mendelssohn soon took second place to something not unlike Rossini and, less surprisingly, the world of the nineteenth-century French organ. Music by Guilmant for piano and harmonium would appear during the second half. I cannot say that the ‘Adagio’ and ‘Danse des songes’ made me long to hear the rest of his ‘symphony-cantata’, Ariane, but it was pleasant enough for a while, if not without sentimentality. Still, one item to which I struggled to respond in a programme of this kind was pretty good going. Speaking of sentimentality, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria preceding it was beautifully shaped, both as arrangement and performance; I am not sure I did not prefer it to the vocal ‘original’.

Returning to the first half, Franck’s Prélude, Fugue et Variation, Op.18, was the real thing, written with the surest command of the unusual combination of instruments, and performed with flair and security. It had impetus; it grew; and ultimately, there was a fine sense of cyclical return. Perhaps the highpoint for me, though, was Saint-Saëns’s ‘Fantasia e Fuga’ from his Six Duos, Op.6, which opened the second half. Opening piano cascades set against harmonium chordal progression? The more one truly listened, the less simple such generalisations were. How, moreover, could one fail to listen in so inviting a performance? Not all fugues are fun — it would be a peculiar, embarrassing description for those in late Beethoven — but this most certainly was. I should have loved to hear more from this collection; leaving an audience wanting more is, however, not an unsound tactic. The remaining piece written expressly for this combination of instruments was Tom Scott’s own Dances for Harmonium and Piano: unapologetically tonal and even, for want of a better word, ‘popular’ in style, a waltz, sarabande, and minimalist(!) gigue were written and performed with typical ease and panache.

Two tone poems completed the two halves: Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre and Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Both offered clarity and imagination in arrangement and performance. In the former, one probably heard more strongly than ever the composer’s debt to Liszt. There was a nice death rattle too. In the latter, equally full of rhythmic impetus, one perhaps listened more clearly to Dukas’s often extraordinary harmonies; I was reasonably sure that I heard things I had not noticed before. Not, of course, that registration failed to ring the colouristic changes. Along with winning introductions and commentary throughout — all in German — we were treated to two encores: a virtuosic account of Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás and an intimately expressive Fauré Après un rêve. A lovely evening, then, to which the Apollo Saal audience responded with great enthusiasm.

Mark Berry

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