Reviews: the classics in Worthing and Brighton

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Emma Johnson (clarinet) with Worthing Symphony Orchestra (conductor John Gibbons) at Assembly Hall, Sunday 13th October

Emma Johnson (clarinet) with Worthing Symphony Orchestra (conductor John Gibbons) at Assembly Hall, Sunday 13th October

SHE’S BEEN a true star for nearly three decades but she’s still the Barnet and Blackheath girl from next door with the dancing eyes and the clarinet ain’t the piano that everybody loves. Yet in her hands and mouth is the most versatile, and continually and untiringly expressive solo wind instrument there is − and the forever young Emma Johnson MBE is one of the world’s top showcasers of that.

So to have her for the first time on stage with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, to play not just one but two pieces at the same concert was a thrill, a privilege and an overflowing cup.

We got two dresses, too. A shoulder-to-floor glittering strappy one in emerald green for Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto and a full-length stunner in scarlet for the Suite from The Victorian Kitchen Garden that Paul Reade wrote specifically for her. To see someone playing a clarinet divinely in that sparkling attire was to realise that the clarinet has star quality many of us never realised.

The clarinet’s her silver spoon. She turns where it turns, and it unites with her when she points it at we the listeners and out comes a range of tone, colour, expression and projection that’s been all hers since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1984.

She and the Finzi Concerto are synonymous in the recording world. “It’s my favourite concerto because it has more depth and more to say than the others,” she told me. “It’s the clarinet equivalent of the Elgar Cello Concerto.

“I do get to play it more often now, including in the provinces, and all power to the Worthing Symphony Orchestra for presenting it to their audience today.”

There was attack, relish and commitment from her in the first movement, delectable and understated lyricism in the second, in the finale a recurring tune which she presented in varying character, and its 27 minutes seemed like only 15. She was at one with the intimacy and the veiled anguish that Finzi breathes.

The orchestral scoring is for strings only and, as on Sunday, to have a provincial professional orchestra playing an all-strings programme would be a quality control risk. Not for the WSO, which is in altogether a different class under conductor John Gibbons.

Their opener was Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, in which section principals Julian Leaper (leader, first violin), Helen Allport (second violin), Stephen Shakeshaft (viola) and David Burrowes (cello) formed the separate though integrated quartet in Elgar’s always masterly instrumental scheme.

Elgar’s often exhilarating song of Herefordshire with its softer Welsh theme introduced by the viola, was like letting loose the WSO thoroughbreds on a work they’d been waiting all their lives to play together. I only wish the contrasting contemplative Welsh theme has not been played so slowly that, for me, it hauled back too far the inexorable flow of the Wye River.

That startling performance set the stage for the Finzi. And when , after the interval, came the BBC TV food-gardening series music Gibbons hid his light under a bushel by not revealing that, in an arrangement for string orchestra of what was written as a suite for clarinet and harp, all the work had been his. Full marks to him for spotting the opportunity to re-arrange it so Johnson could bring it to us.

Short and deliciously sweet as greengage dessert described Prelude, Spring, Mists, Exotica and Summer, which these pieces are thus titled. We want Johnson back and she tells me she would like to play the Concerto that Johnny Dankworth composed for her. I think the WSO audience would actually enjoy that. Many will, after all, fondly recall Benny Goodman. Remember what I said about versatility of the clarinet?

Concluding the concert was Tchaikowsky’s familiar and substantial Serenade for Strings. To the concert it was a fitting and accomplished conclusion. But it could not diminish or overshadow, let alone cap, the fascination and charm of what had gone before.

Richard Amey

Next events:

25th October 6.45pm (NB time): Olga Paliy (piano) in a special Russian-flavoured Worthing Symphony Society Interview Concert at The Denton, Worthing Pier. The Ukrainian won the Audience Prize at the Sussex Piano Competition at Worthing in April. Russian poetry read by Susanna Gordon in translation. Seating unreserved in the round for an intimate listening experience. Glinka, Balakirev, Rachmaninov, Kosenko, Schumann, Ginastera; Pasternak, Zavronok, Pushkin, Balmont.

Sunday 10th November (2.45pm): WSO Remembrance Day Concert – George Lloyd, Symphony No 6; Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs (Anna Gorbachyova, soprano); Shostakovich, Symphony No 5. Big orchestra, ravishing voice, uplifting Lloyd.

(Box office for both events 01903 206206)

Apollon Musagète Quartet – Coffee Concert, Corn Exchange, Brighton (Sunday, October 13)

THE STREAM of superb new string quartets emerging in Europe flows on and through the Coffee Concert series. Barely 3½ years old, the Polish ensemble Apollon Musagète Quartet already have a trail of pulled-up trees behind them and last year were BBC Radio 3 New Generation artists among other things in their burgeoning prize trophy cabinet.

Their already remarkable reach and range were on show at their series debut on Sunday. They carried us from Mendelssohn through Prokofiev and Stravinsky to Shostakovich with an astounding degree of finesse and authority for their relatively short time together.

Each piece demonstrated their comfort in each of these zones and all added up to another deeply rewarding and enlightening morning’s listening for an audience of 220 piled up the bleachers and all facing forward in a Corn Exchange unfortunately laid out for the current Comedy Festival instead of for the socially stimulating and executionally insightful world of music in the round.

The programme was bookended by a deeply-felt and finely-wrought work – Mendelssohn’s 2nd Quartet in A minor of 1827 and Shostakovich’s 4th in D of 1949. Between them were lighter, though no less absorbing items exploring effect, in Prokofiev’s Samsonov-arranged Visions Fugitives of 1915-17, and rhythm, in Stravinsky’s Concertino for String Quartet of his French provincial, pre-Paris days of 1920.

Mendelssohn’s unrequited love for Betty Pistor and his absorption of late Beethoven shaped this early work and the rhythmic motif “Is it true?” was both its starting point and concluding two-sided question. At only 18, his emotional capacity allied to his technical and inspirational flair was transmitted to us by the Apollon Musagète in a formidable account, felicitous as well as probing, tender as well as crisp.

They did not get the fullest audience response they deserved but by the time of the Shostakovich the listeners had grasped the calibre of artistry before them. The composer’s sympathy for the Jews brought out four movements, none of them fast, echoing their folk music’s two-pronged expression of smiles summoned through a smog of despair.

In this the climax of the programme, the Apollon Musagète set a scene of the composer’s disquiet moving through an almost hysterical scream of torment to a sequence of soft march-like dances. Pavel Zalejski (1st fiddle), Bartosz Zachlod (2nd), Piotr Szumiel (viola) and Piotr Skweres here all touched heights of intense individual articulation.

The entertainment came in the middle, astride the interval. Prokofiev’s miniature piano pieces converted to string quartet by Samsonov exploited, among other things, the smoky effects of string mutes if two degrees of constriction, the sixth of the seven items, Poetico, quieter still thanks to the use of practice mutes. In Ridicolosamente, a familiar tick-tock Prokofiev rhythm and a silly solo by Zalejski – a real team player in the lead position of the ensemble – gave us a sketch to make us laugh out loud.

Stravinsky’s astonishing writing gave us a rare experience of it in the string quartet medium, with stabby, jazzy rhythms and accents before Zalejski took off into a jabbing and frenetic section of insistent double-stopping, soothed by an unexpected calm, legato, even (for Stravinsky) cantabile conclusion.

Where we would be as semi-educated chamber music listeners without Chris Darwin’s matchless programme notes? Ignorant, I am sure, and far from blissfully so.

Before Christmas, the Coffee Concert series delivers a Rachel Podger morning of solo violin Baroque as part of what this season is an especially exciting Brighton Early Music Festival (November 10), then come the Heath Quartet with Schubert, Tippett and Beethoven (December 15).

The Heath’s level of popularity is something many other quartets would reach given a similar frequency of appearance to theirs. Inevitable, given the intimacy of the musical exchange that is the chamber music experience.

Richard Amey