Wassailing the apple tree

10 Jan

Along Betty Haunt Lane, off Forest Road on the Isle of Wight lies Great Park Farm. Here this evening, in the cold and the drizzle and the dark, assembled a small group of people of varied ages, to take part in the ancient ritual of wassailing.

Following an opening and envigorating session of dance delivered by the truly exotic Moonshine Border Morris, with curiosity piqued, toes nipped and pates dampened, we trooped into an adjoining field to wassail the apple tree.

Our learned host explained that there are two main kinds of wassailing: first the visit and sharing of drink; second the gathering to invoke blessing for a specific purpose. Ours was the latter, in this case to request divine assistance in the fruiting of some apple trees.

There is something thrilling about taking part in a ritual whose origins go back hundreds or perhaps thousands of years. The proceedings included sharing of cider, soaking of bread toast in cider and placing the impregnated rounds in the branches of the needy tree. Then singing the wassail song and shouting to invoke the spirits made us forget the cold and rain.

Theis most unusual hour culminated in another session of dance. The thump of the drum, jiggle of the tambourine and lilt and sway of the accordion created an attractive backcloth upon which the magnificently attired and made up dancers wove their magic.

Things are happening out there in the fields…

Sally Halsey at St Catherine’s Church, Ventnor 2014-01-05

6 Jan

Sally Halsey at St Catherine’s Church, Ventnor 2014-01-05.

Sally Halsey at St Catherine’s Church, Ventnor 2014-01-05

5 Jan

Sally Halsey

St Catherine’s Church, Ventnor is a surprisingly vibrant musical venue. The church committee regularly puts on concerts of a high quality, attracting notable talent to this out-of-the-way seaside town on the Isle of Wight. Sally Halsey is a native Islander who has achieved considerable success as a pianist, specialising in chamber music, piano trios and accompaniment. Today she treated a near- capacity audience to a display of her abilities, offering works by Brahms, Scriabin, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Played on an antique Blüthner, well-suited to the more intimate venue, these pieces delighted and transported us to a warmer, more elevated plane, countering the rain, wind and dreariness outside.

We began with Rhapsody in G minor Op 79 no. 2 by Brahms, rendered by Halsey with precision, musical depth and feeling. The richness of Brahms is a good way to draw in an audience, with an effect like sinking into a comfortable armchair, then being emotionally engaged and caressed by waves of sound. The next delight was Prelude and Nocturne for Left Hand by Scriabin. Introduced by Halsey as “reflective”, the piece was that and more. With sections unmistakably in the mould of Chopin’s Étude Op 25 No. 7, this meditative and beautiful work was delivered tenderly by the pianist.

The last offering before the interval was Rondo Capriccioso by Mendelssohn, faultlessly rendered.

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After the short pause, we heard the complete Sonata Op 110 in A-flat major by Beethoven. Full of characteristically turbulent, varied motifs, the sonata contains fugues, fast and slow movements and a lot of emotional power. Halsey proved up to the challenge and the closing applause was genuine.

The perfect encore came in the former of Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1, a piece that suits perfectly Halsey’s strengths, which include the ability to connect with the all-important silences between notes and the sensibility to bring out the reflective dimension of music.

How fortunate we are to hear such art for free on a Sunday afternoon, performed for charity.

Christina Ortiz at Queen Elizabeth Hall, 2013-11-27

5 Jan

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Christina Ortiz at QEH 2013-11-27

5 Jan

Chopin himself did not regard the large concert hall as the proper environment for the performance of his music. How can the pianist deliver effectively the dynamic contrasts required to portray fully the emotional and spiritual content of these wondrous compositions, when surrounded by such a large volume of space to fill with sound from a single instrument, however powerful? This was the task Christina Ortiz set herself in presenting all four Ballades and Scherzos of the Polish master in one programme.

The sheer artistic, emotional and physical feat of performing these monumental works together is impressive and requires great stamina and focus, qualities Ms Ortiz definitely possesses. She is also indisputably a master pianist of impeccable skill. Her fingers flew felicitously over the keyboard, rendering every motif and phrase to perfection. And yet something was not right. Too often I felt that the experience was akin to watching a pizza chef twirling and throwing the pastry aloft; or a cocktail barman gymnastically shaking and mixing drinks. Mesmerising, but does all that make the pizza tastier, the cocktail more potent?

It has been said and I agree, that a good part of the musical virtue of Chopin is expressed not in his melodies, though these are often gorgeous enough, but rather in the revolutionary use of harmony and counterpoint; the innovative development of musical forms; the exploitation of the piano’s dynamic range and expressive capabilities. I felt our performer, perhaps necessarily for the reasons outlined above, lost some of these virtues in her quest to conquer the pianistic challenge and to meet the expectations of the ticket-buying audience.

The melodies were woven beautifully and with very effective rubato over a confident accompaniment but some of the finer harmonic effects were missing, occasionally through excessive playing speed.

In all, somewhat disappointing, perhaps inevitably.

Valentina Seferinova at the Rotunda, Portsmouth Grammar School 2013-11-23

25 Nov

Valentina Seferinova at the Rotunda, Portsmouth Grammar School 2013-11-23.

Valentina Seferinova at the Rotunda, Portsmouth Grammar School 2013-11-23

24 Nov

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This concert review begins on a non-musical note, for which please bear with me. It seemed a good way to start and a relevant point to make on a matter of current concern.

A national panic fills the pages of our newspapers at present about immigration to the UK from the newest members of the EU. Drowning out the voices of a justified and sober concern, lurid and irresponsible media stories are offered up for our consumption; politicians of the ill-tempered variety pop up on the news and rant; more responsible (but equally ambitious) politicians find themselves drawn in. With all the anxiety, justified or not, negative and uncomfortable fears obscure an under-reported positive outcome that we may equally expect from the closer relationship of our peoples, namely the priceless influx of superbly trained and highly accomplished classical musicians from Eastern Europe and the corpus of under-performed music to which we have been exposed by them. No-one who has experienced the standard of Eastern European musicianship, music education and performance skill that has graced UK and other Western local concert platforms in recent years can be in any doubt that as to the tremendous cultural benefit derived from East-West migration.

Already, the entrepreneurial spirit of the first waves of these artists has penetrated deeply into regional life here in the UK and this is well exemplified by Valentina Seferinova, the Portsmouth-based music lecturer, concert pianist and piano teacher. Music-lovers there and further afield already recognise her as something of a local treasure. Seferinova is seemingly on a mission to bring the music of her native Bulgarian and other Eastern European  composers to the attention and appreciation of local audiences. On the evidence of last night’s concert at the Rotunda, she is succeeding.

The Rotunda audience also demonstrated Seferinova’s appeal across age-groups. Glancing around the room during the performance I saw rapt attention and genuine emotional involvement writ upon the faces of both young and old listeners. A scholar as well as performer, her chosen pieces are always illuminated with helpful introductory background. As to her performance art, it combines the ability to impress across the full dynamic range, with a mature skill in communicating with an audience and creating atmosphere; an ethereal delicacy of touch employed to great effect in refining and enhancing the emotional impact of a piece; near-flawless technical skill and fearlessness in tackling and communicating the often wild, complex and sometimes dissonant passions of the composers she champions. It takes courage to sell difficult and unfamiliar music to casual audiences and that is a particular virtue she seems to possess.

Ms Seferinova strode to the Steinway in a brilliant, sequinned outfit befitting for the performance dazzle to come. Last night’s selection followed to some extent a seasonal autumnal theme and opened with a trio of short pieces, Trois Morceaux, Op. 2 by the underrated Joachim Raff, whose music possesses a marked power to engage and move the listener emotionally with its strong, lyrical melodies.

Second on the agenda was my highlight of the evening, Józef Wieniawski’s Fantaisie et Fugue, Op. 25. The fugue has a real driving force, brought out powerfully by our pianist. It possesses the integrity and fullness of a Bach fugue and was a real delight to hear as its complex patterns were woven so convincingly, an act hard to pull off with any fugue.

The wild and sometimes angry passions of Pancho Vladigerov, arguably the foremost ever Bulgarian composer, captivated us going into the interval. Vladigerov’s music is also greatly under-rated and under-performed; Seferinova awoke within our spirits something of its visceral nature. The piece performed was Elégie d’automne, op. 15

Following the interval, now resplendent in flowing green, Ms Seferinova offered Zygmund Noskowski’s very attractive En Automne, Op 29 No.1 and Valse Dolente, Op. 35, No. 3. She has recorded Noskowski recently in Poland: CDs are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Zygmunt-Noskowski-Piano-Works-1/dp/B001V88CO G.

The evening concluded with Sergei Rachmaninov’s 5-part Morceaux de Fantasie op. 3. Almost everyone will know something of the second of these Morceaux, the Prelude in C sharp minor, with its crashing chords, turbulent emotional power and tenderness. Seferinova easily traversed the iconic opening from fortissimo low C to the three pianissimo  chords ending on D that seem to say and ask so much. Now in love with the Russian master, we were taken by the performer through beautiful avenues of musical exploration, one of the loveliest being the Polichinelle, its capricious passages punctuated by an exquisite, wave-like melody of rarest aesthetic and emotional depth. Seferinova is meticulous in her faithfulness to the scores she presents, allowing the listener to move close to the composer’s intention.

Sustained, enthusiastic applause and an encore later, we walked to the Isle of Wight ferry fortified against the cold weather and late-night revellers; our musical high more than a match for their alcohol-induced version.

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