Review: Portsmouth Menuhin Room concert series: Cordelia Williams

This new series of Saturday lunchtime recitals in Portsmouth’s Menuhin Room took no time at all to establish itself with a high standard of performance and an engaging programme of events. Somehow, Cordelia Williams took on the enormous challenge of following last week’s Shostakovich and was in no way found wanting.

Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives features on her forthcoming disc, Cascades, and so we were treated to a preview although the live performance experience is invariably preferable to the obvious advantages of a record in any case.

Twenty short pieces were ‘fleeting’ indeed, even within their brevity. Music, or Western music, is traditionally mostly repetitive but you don’t get any second chances as these snatches of drama, dazzling flashes, fragments of rhapsody and startling interjections pour forth.

Cordelia tested out the Steinway’s top notes and found them crystalline and shiny. A jaunty dance before the crashing exploitation of both extremes of the keyboard was packed with energy before the lento irrealmente was, like gold, to airy thinness beat.

Schumann’s Waldszenen, op. 82, was ‘high Romanticism’ not only for how, as Cordelia explained, it identifies intensely with the natural world and makes such detail of human significance but also, for me, for its light and dark. Gorgeous but shady, its Haunted Place evoked something walking about so unsettlingly that, as Diana Swann’s very useful programme notes told us, Clara Schumann wouldn’t play it. It’s a good thing she never heard Pierrot Lunaire. The Bird as Prophet further disturbed the surface of an otherwise happy-sounding world before an exuberant Hunting Song and another set of short pieces ended pacifically but also radiantly, with Farewell.

Perhaps the history of music could be told as the story of how it increasingly addressed horror, or had no other option. The second half was Schubert’s Sonata D. 958, taking another step back in time. I hope I’m not the only one who thinks of Schubert as younger than Beethoven without always realizing that he died only a year later which makes their respective ‘late’ periods exactly contemporary notwithstanding that they both, again in Cordelia’s words, had ‘dark nights of the soul’ however tuneful they managed to make them sound.

The Allegro dresses its torment in disarming jollity, the Minuet is tentative. We are never quite allowed to be carefree. What will stay most in the memory of this most memorable performance will be Cordelia’s f, ff and ffz, startlingly foregrounded against her p. The allegro finale was an entirely captivating grandstand skip and dash, not necessarily towards the end but pursued by something more grisly than a bear.

It should never be allowed to go without saying what a fine job Andrew McVittie has done in putting this series together and we should acknowledge his well-organized ‘front of house’ team and thank them, too. He is a most gracious and generous host and his series is proving to be an outstanding artistic success. There’s plenty more to come this year before we dare hope he can do it all again next.

Whether you were lucky enough to be there today or not, there’s a supply of Cordelia here, CDs, for those times when the wireless is playing an opera by Wagner. Or contemporary jazz.

David Green

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