Review: Piano Spectrum at the Menuhin Room

Menuhin Room, Portsmouth, Feb 11

Andrew McVittie and Helen Morris set this new series of recitals in motion with a hugely enjoyable shared programme billed as ‘carefully selected piano sounds designed to soothe the mind and body’.

Andrew was first up with Debussy’s First Arabesque and made it glisten but maybe the much-vaunted Steinway helped and it continued to live up to its reputation from hereon in.

Helen’s Philip Glass, the Étude no. 12, was another version of that piece that he usually writes with its rhythmic and harmonic misfits expressing more than such limited use of the palette one might think could offer in its tones of modern melancholy. But if Andrew’s Rachmaninov Prelude, op. 23 no. 6, was intended to suggest cherry blossom then it was invested with more of an emotional charge than any I’ve seen.

Piano Spectrum was the title of the programme rather than the double act and Andrew was interested in synaesthesia and what colour the Adagio from Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata is. Being completely immune to the condition, I voted for green but few of the audience did so with me so it was a bit like some General Elections. Maybe it’s reddish, then, but what I heard was Andrew beautifully paced and modulated. While tempi tend to quicken and speed is sometimes achieved for its own sake, music is not a competitive sport – I hope- and Andrew relaxes comfortably into his music.

Three original compositions by Helen herself were an attractive special treat. Written as exercises for her students, it was too tempting to try to find which composers she had borrowed from. Maybe none at all and such things might all be in the mind of the listener but maybe if Michael Nyman turns down his next commission, it could be offered to Helen.

Andrew’s Grieg Nocturne was a restful night for the most part but his account of Philip Glass, in the Metamorphosis no. 1, was as evocative as Helen’s but necessarily more ominous and both performances, as candidates for the main highlight among several, could easily send one back to the likes of Koyaanisqatsi, Akhnaten and maybe the Violin Concerto to re-live their out-of-kilter C20th aesthetic which came before our more recent need to bury ourselves in the comforts of Bach and the C18th.

Emma Lou Dierner’s Piano Sonata, just the first movement today, was the most demanding piece to listen to and, quite likely, to play, departing more than somewhat from the stated manifesto. Good Heavens, where does it go from there, having scattered itself in all directions and put in such a rumbustious finish. Helen delivered it with impressive panache without necessarily making it mean as much to me as the gorgeous finale.

Andrew returned with Farewell to Stromness, the misty, nostalgic elegy by Peter Maxwell-Davies, again very much at home relishing something that sounds timeless in the music and not going any faster than he has to. It was a gorgeous finish that carried me home. Had there been a four-handed encore, which maybe there could have been, maybe it wouldn’t have and, honestly, it would have been unreasonable to have expected more.

Andrew’s comments have implied that there is more, maybe ‘better’, to come, from this series but it won’t need to be any ‘better’ for it to completely or more than exceed our optimistic expectations. It was great to see this first event well supported but it wasn’t full. You’d be well advised to get your seats for the rest of the events before anybody else does.

Thanks for being there, Helen, and Andrew, who has done such a good job of making it happen.

David Green  

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