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Colin Johnson’s blog

Review: Duncan Strachan (cello) and Simon Smith (piano), Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, 16th March 2012

This concert began with two of the instrumental movements from Birtwistle’s Bogenstrich, a piece that includes both vocal and purely instrumental sections. The first of these, Song without Words, was Birtwistle does late romanticism—or, more, accurately, a revisiting of that late nineteenth century point in musical history where romanticism was sliding into expressionism. This expressive piece alternated a coherent set of melodic and expressive gestures from the cello with more angular piano material. In the second piece, Like a Fugue, we were on more solid modernist ground—blocky piano writing, and the systematic working through of processes reminiscent of earlier pieces such as Harrison’s Clocks.

This was followed by a short, simple but effective recent piece by the pianist, Simon David Smith. This was in the form of a take on the German hymn tune O Welt, ich muss dish lassen, which has been used as source material by other composers such as Brahms. This piece made effective, straightforward use of the material.

Stuart MacRae’s Unity, which formed the third piece in the programme, was an exploration of the idea of treating the two instruments as a single sound source, rather than as a pairing. The majority of the piece consisted of two kinds of material, with spare material alternating with rapid, expressive material; throughout this, an arhythmic sense was maintained through tempo-shifts and long rapid note sequences. Rather oddly, the piece ended on a couple of minutes of formal, strictly timed material, with the piano playing chords in time and the cello filling in simple, repetitive material. This rather jarred with the freeness of the majority of the piece, but it just about hung together.

The final piece was Valentin Silvestrov’s Sonata, a 20 minute piece, which, according to the programme note, also explored the idea of two players working as a single source of sound. The unifying material for the piece was a trilly, tremolandoey murk out of which gestures and melodies emerged. Such a structure can be effective—consider a piece such as Berio’s Rendering. In this content, however, it was ineffective; each gesture started anew, giving the impression of a piece that was constantly starting and then petering back into the murk, rather than having any sense of development. The melodic sections, presented in a more strongly tonal language than the remainder of the work, were also rather isolated: a melody with straightforward, almost clichéd harmonisation, would be presented, then the trill would start again, and back into the mud without any development. Overall, this resulted in a directionless piece. The ending was perhaps the oddest part of the piece, moving towards the inside of the piano and extreme harmonics on the cello, material that hadn’t been hinted at prior to the last couple of minutes. Overall, the sort of piece that minimalism could have been if it had started from expressionist material!

The playing was of a very high standard. It is clear that the two performers have worked hard at presenting a single sound, rather than coming together in an ad hoc fashion. Overall, a good concert, rather let down by the directionlessness of the final piece.

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