Review: Oliver Nelson & Julian Jacobson at Chichester

Oliver Nelson & Julian Jacobson, Chichester Cathedral, June 18

Cliff Richard didn’t have much of a case when asking why the devil has all the good music. He didn’t and the massed ranks of composers who wrote Christian music have plenty of powerful ammunition on their side. However, the violin has been associated with demonic powers and long before Paganini was thought to be possessed, Guiseppe Tartini dreamed of the diabolo playing to him something out of this world and tried his best to recapture it in the Devil’s Trill Sonata so it was very open-minded of Chichester Cathedral to host a recital of it. 

The Sonata in G minor, as it is otherwise known, opens graciously. One needs to be a real connoisseur to differentiate between Vivaldi and all the other Italian baroque composers in an age when individuality hadn’t yet been identified as anything devoutly to be wished. More acrobatics and agility were to be had in the Allegro energico with its unresting, driven spirit given fluent expression by Oliver and that was carried forward into the finale until then it happened – the cadenza unleashed the thrilling trilling and extended scorching pyrotechnics. It’s a great thing to realize that one is risking disappointment by taking such audacious billing at its word and then not be.

One might, if attempting the world record for curmudgeonliness, say it is virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake but Oliver even accommodates that by not even making it look bravura or excessively showy but the Chichester faithful sensed they were in the presence of something extraordinary.

It was hardly any fault of Julian Jacobson that he could have gone virtually unnoticed as accompanist in that but he was more conspicuous in the Prokofiev Sonata no. 2. The Moderato was more soulful and the Scherzo-Presto again demanding as if to suggest that maybe Oliver enjoys a technical challenge with some quasi-Tartini moments in the violin’s skittering over glittering piano. The Andante evoked evening and fading light before the Allegro con brio was Prokofiev at his most Shostakovich, Julian providing piano both spirited and elegant to complement the same on the violin. It has sometimes seemed to me that Prokofiev was over-shadowed in life by Shostakovich and in death by Stalin who died on the same day and thus obliterated all but the most necessary mention of his passing from Pravda but there’s every reason to pursue more of his perhaps lesser-known music because of course he’s a major composer and on this evidence will reward further investigation.

I’m not at all surprised to look up Oliver and find the Ysaye solo Sonatas among his repertoire, music that I put on again recently after a long break and was re-astonished by and so any opportunity to hear him play some of those, especially alongside the Tartini, should be taken full advantage of. It’s getting mighty crowded at the top end of my lengthening short list of this year’s highlights. I don’t want them to stop coming but not everything can be chosen as Event of the Year.

David Green

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