Sibelius Reflected: Fenella Humphreys and Joseph Tong at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival 2022 [3] – Phibbs, Sibelius, Matthews, Rautavaara, Frances-Hoad: Fenella Humphreys (violin), Joseph Tong (piano). Holy Trinity Church, Hereford, 27.7.2022. (CS)

Fenella Humphreys (violin) and Joseph Tong (piano) © Dale Hodgetts & James O’Driscoll

Joseph Phibbs – Sonata (concert premiere)
Sibelius – Five Pieces, ‘The Trees’, Op.75
David MatthewsFive Trees (festival co-commission, premiere)
RautavaaraSummer Thoughts
Cheryl Frances-Hoad – Sonatina
Sibelius – Five Pieces, Op.81

Cool, classical breezes seemed to blow through this recital programme by violinist Fenella Humphries and pianist Joseph Tong, with occasional warming wafts from the amorous, mischievous South.  Contemporary British and Finnish works were interleaved with miniatures by Sibelius, the whole embraced by the theme of ‘nature’.

Joseph Phibbs’ Sonata (2020) opened the programme.  Against the piano’s subtle circlings, quiet pizzicato ‘bells’ presented a compelling motif at the opening of the ‘Prelude’ before Humphreys unfolded a seamless, serene melody, shadowed by occasional ‘flutterings’.  Vigour and warmth pushed the melody higher, but the prevailing mood was one of intense stillness.  ‘Nocturne’ was spectral – all twinkles, flitterings and ethereal harmonics, the latter purely focused by Humphreys, until piano oscillations released a dancing energy within the violin, which ventured down to a gritty G-string then spun lightly before coming to rest with slightly tense up-bow gestures.  In ‘Ostinato’, a meandering arpeggio-figure, clearly enunciated, accompanied the slowly unfolding violin melody.  Humphreys’ bow control and tone, as the line rose with mesmerising lucidity, were exemplary; she sustained an engaging focus, without vibrato, the intonation utterly true.  ‘Blues’ kicked off with stabbing fleetness, combining a floating fluidity with driven energy.  However vigorous and flamboyant the gestures, the duo’s control and refinement were exemplary.

Humphreys premiered Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Sonatina (an arrangement of the composer’s earlier Songs and Dances for cello and piano) with Nicola Eimer in April 2019.  The low piano bass notes that open the ‘Quietly dignified’ first movement created a sombre but poised ambience and triggered imaginative exploration of Romantic seams by both instruments.  The movement slipped segue into the capricious middle movement, the asymmetry of the time signatures combined with quirky flourishes in the piano texture creating a vibrant dance above which Humphreys’ violin could soar, sweet and smooth.  The calmer, more expansive central episode gave welcome pause for breath, but the reprise was infectiously playful. Returning to the mood of the opening, the final movement had a ‘summative weight’.  Again, the focused power of Humphreys’ sustained strokes was absorbing and there was a wonderful sense of spaciousness and breadth before the long-held final violin note released the tension, slipping away into silence.

David Matthews’ Five Trees for solo piano (2021-22) is a companion piece to Sibelius’s The Trees, Op.75 (1914). ‘The Oak’ had nobility but Joseph Tong also found an elegiac gentleness, while ‘The Willow’ danced to a tender lilt, exploring and growing as spread chords and spirals let in the air and light.  Dotted rhythms and ‘scotch snaps’ – taut but not exaggerated – created folky patterns in ‘Scots pine’, a lovely upwards rush from the bottom triggering falling cascades which grew in urgency.  This was music both spirited and serious.  A contrast of register and texture characterised the apple tree, though from the scurrying emerged a lovely melody which came to gentle and harmonious rest.  The slower pulse of ‘English elm’, and the gravity of the repeating, slow rhythmic statement, created a portentous calm which dissolved into a barely-there gesture of avowal and presence, against the odds.

Tong prefaced the first performance of Matthews’ arboreal cycle with the work with which it converses, Sibelius’ Five Pieces (The Trees), Op.75.  One scarcely thinks of Sibelius as a composer for the piano, but in fact the composer wrote more than a hundred works for the instrument, many of them miniatures – for domestic consumption and as money-spinners, perhaps, but no less lovingly created for that.  Tong persuasively made a case for Sibelius’ lively embrace of a lighter, sometimes salon-ish, Chopin-esque idiom.  There was absolutely no condescension here.  The pianist found contrasts of dynamic and texture, sustained a natural ebb and flow, and, with insight and affection, brought nature into Hereford’s Holy Trinity Church.

The rowan blossom tumbled freely, nascent melody stirred by fluid syncopations.  The solitary fir tree evinced more grandeur, as warm, strong arpeggiated chords created spacious expanse and height, the simple stepwise motifs establishing a confident solemnity.  The leaves of the aspen glittered and were gay, spilling into the birch which rustled urgently in vigorous patterns.  The spruce endured more turbulence, but its nobility withstood the bombast of the breezes, and the minor-key close was thoughtful.  Tong’s insight and commitment were served by a consummate technique and the result was intellectually and emotively engaging, making much of Sibelius’ miniature forms.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Summer Thoughts (2008) are a reworking of material composed in 1972.  Humphreys confirmed the lyricism of the short narrative, bringing forth both the easefulness and the shadows, and again the length of the bow-line and the sustained power of tone were impressive.  The recital closed with Sibelius’ Op.81 Five Pieces which reminded one that Sibelius was himself a violinist and that he wrote many small works for violin and piano –  ‘character pieces’ of real freshness, range from melodising suitable for amateurs and pieces which make more virtuosic demands.

Humphreys and Tong displayed an instinctive feeling for the phrasing, colour and detail of these miniatures.  Humphreys’ technique seemed to meet no challenges when confronted with the double stops of the ‘Mazurka’, and the freedom of form and phrasing, of ebb and flow, was lovely.  The piano’s perpetuo mobile in the ‘Rondino’ supported a joyful violin melody, while ‘Valse’ was full of grace, somehow both even and nuanced, effortlessly easeful.  The ‘Aubade’ was flamboyant – Humphreys was unfazed by the multiple stops and complex pizzicato demands, and the set romped home with a ‘Minuet’ of folky vigour which modulated into Schumann-esque rapture.

The duos’ encore was the ‘Impromptu’ from Sibelius’ Four Pieces, Op.78, full of joie de vivre.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment