Review: Chichester Cathedral Lunchtime Concerts series: Jenny Lewisohn and Antonio Oyarzabal

Chichester Cathedral, 7 February

Women composers are hopefully, if somewhat belatedly, no longer a curiosity. At one time the prevailing attitude to them might have been like that of Dr. Johnson to women preachers,

Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

notwithstanding Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, to name only two.

Antonio Oyarzabal’s ongoing project is to explore their work further, going into lesser-known names of which there are plenty in either gender. Today with Jenny Lewishon, he presented music for piano and viola.

And it’s been great to hear the viola featured prominently in some local recitals recently. It is much under-rated and under-used outside the string quartet and in Minna Keal’s Ballade was more cello than violin in its rich register but more much itself than either. Calm, composed and measured, the question was to persist whether those were qualities of the composers or the musicians throughout the concert.

I’ve wondered from time to time, and for a long time, whether there is a difference in literature between the work of male and female writers, prompted mainly by the apparent need for anthologies of ‘women’s’ poetry and women’s prizes, as if ‘women’s writing’ was a different thing to writing. In writing, as in music, surely all work uses the same syntax but it’s certainly possible that some women take up different themes to those that men do, or approach them from other perspectives. Music, though, is less encumbered by literal meanings and I’m not convinced there’s the same difference.

Freda Swain’s English Reel was a darting, mercurial thing demanding much more from the bow and all the fingers of the four hands involved before her mellower Song at Evening had Antonio’s piano embellishment following Jenny’s top line around.

But those pieces were not on the same scale as Rebecca Clarke’s Sonata. She might not be a household name in non-musical households but at least she is famous enough for me to have heard of her. Immediately imposing in its opening statement and more ‘modern’, the piano in the Impetuoso was like a loaded subconscious under the viola’s flights of emotion. The mixture of pizzicato, spiccato and bowing in the Vivace was more agitato than one might expect from a Vivaldi vivace and made me think again that Jenny is a brilliant technician rather than one that exaggerates passion. 

It again isn’t traditional to finish with an Adagio movement but those markings are not metronome settingsSometimes they appeared almost ironic as the movement developed from the bare piano line into elegy, but it included more than that. If there had been a hint of a Scottish song in it, that impression was given some support by the encore I’ll Bid My Heart Be Still which was exactly that and all clarity and wide spaces.

As ever, it was another tremendous Chichester lunchtime with everything to admire about it from the programme through the performance to the setting and the value.

David Green

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