Review of Guy Johnston (cello) and Tom Poster (piano) at Portsmouth Grammar School

Well, what a treat Guy Johnston and Tom Poster gave us on Saturday evening at Portsmouth Grammar School’s David Russell Theatre as part of the 2019 Portsmouth Festivities.

Guy told us that they had been performing together for half their lifetimes ever since they met as competitors in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2000 – “which Tom let me win” as Guy modestly explained last night!

This close collaboration was evident tonight when the pair gave us a fascinating programme of mostly short pieces from less well-known corners of the cello/piano repertoire.

Right from the start, with Beethoven’s 1801 Bei Männern Variations, (which takes its theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute), they watched each other intently and balanced the music perfectly. Although Beethoven puts the piano front and centre, they produced attractive exchanges combining the light-hearted and dramatic aspects of the music beautifully.

Grieg’s 1882 Cello Sonata in A minor was the one full-length item of the evening. This was Grieg’s only work for this combination, and although occasionally reminiscent of the piano concerto, deserves to be heard more often. Guy and Tom gave expression to the full character of the music from the sublime tender moments in the slow movement to the repeated crashing climaxes of the finale.

After the interval we heard Chopin’s Introduction and Polonaise Brillante mostly composed in Antonin, Poland, in 1829. In last night’s performance the Polonaise was indeed brilliant!

Kiss on Wood by Sir James MacMillan was originally composed for violin and piano but arranged for cello and piano in 1993. It is based on the Good Friday versicle Ecce lignum crucis and is devotional in intent perhaps depicting the congregation moving forward to kiss the wooden cross. After a dramatic, agonising opening the piece tapers to delicate slow sustained music ending in isolated staccato taps in the piano’s upper register. None of us dared to applaud lest there would be another one!

After the tension of Kiss on Wood Schumann’s supremely romantic 1849 Adagio and Allegro put us back in more familiar territory. Guy played this from memory which no doubt helped reinforce the intimacy and warmth of the music.

Lastly we heard Martinu’s 1942 Variations on a theme of Rossini, although it might best be called “Variations on a theme of Paganini who first borrowed it from Rossini’s Moses in Egypt”. This was the highlight of the evening for me, and others I think, as it was the most enthusiastically received. The players displayed their full virtuosity in this demanding piece. The ensemble was impeccable in its many rushing scales and arpeggios.

Many thanks to Guy and Tom and Portsmouth Festivities, a wonderful evening.

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