Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Night the Trout went out

The Festival’s first evening concert, billed as ‘The Trout’, took place tonight at the Jersey Opera House. But there was one slight anomaly: there was no Trout. The visa for Chinese viola player Wenxiao Zheng, and hence he, had failed to come through in time, and .. well, no viola, no Trout. But top-billed Festival star Nicola Benedetti (violin) came to the party and the rescue, and instead of the Schubert we got … Shostakovitch and César Franck. The harried Festival official who announced the changes from the stage assured us that we wouldn’t be losing by them, and, my goodness, was he right!
The first part of the concert was, thus, given by Ms Benedetti, along with violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and pianist Wu Qian from the Sitkovetsky Trio, and, in spite of the size of the Opera House, it somehow felt more like a merry musical evening round the piano with friends than a formal concert. The artists, and Leonard Eischenbroich (‘cello) who completes the trio, are apparently old friends, all graduates of the Yehudi Menuhin school, and that comfortable feeling of fellowship coloured warmly what came to us from the stage.
Nicola Benedetti is the best-known of the four artists. But not to me. I have had my head buried in Victorian Vocalists, Wagner and the back end of a horse whilst she has been zipping up the ladder of fame. From what I had read up, I was afraid that I was going to get some souped-up TV dollybird in a little black dress and a Lady Diana died-blonde hairdo, but yippee! Not at all, at all. Ms Benedetti is a fine, tall and poised young woman, more Amélie Mauresmo than Céline Dion, with not a drop of peroxide in sight, and she favoured us last night with a stunning full-length creation in scarlet satin. She also favoured us with some truly magnificent violin playing. The critic who wrote something about her body and her violin joining as in one arc was right, and the even older cliché about making a fiddle sing was right too. But Ms Benedetti doesn’t make her violin sing like Adelina Patti or Joan Sutherland .. all skills and Wieniawski frills .. the singer who comes to mind, rather, is the late Giulietta Simionato, with that wide seamless range (Ms B goes for ages without seeming to change her bow) and, above all, those wonderful deep contralto tones. In the César Franck sonata in A major, with which she and Wu Qian replaced ‘The Trout’, those brandy-coloured tones echoed out over the hall in a simply thrilling manner.
The piece, in fact, of which I also knew nothing until tonight (and which was apparently written as a wedding present for Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe) has some really lovely passages – long-lined, unfussy, well there is no other word I can find, ‘singing’ music – and I am decidedly grateful to the British Immigration Services for letting me hear it.
As a little ‘starter’, before the César Franck, Ms Benedetti and Wu Qian were joined by Sitkovetsky in a one-piano, two-violin performance of five little pieces by Shostakovitch some at least of which, if I heard the announcement aright, come from the world of film and even cartoon. They made an absolutely delightful -- sometimes charming, sometimes silly-jolly -- little opener to the evening, and quite soulaged an audience who’d come to hear the ‘easy’ Schubert and were instead being served up a programme of a rather different kind.
They also made me look forward muchly to the second half, and to hearing a great deal more of Mr Sitkovetsky. His violin sings differently to that of Ms Benedetti. Instead of a roaming mezzo-contralto, he is a baritone: not a booming Robert Merrill one but more of a Gerard Souzay. Delicate, precise, ineffably sweet and -- best of all -- twinkling and pixie-ish in the light-hearted and jokey bits. His engaging smile, as he took his bow, said it all.
Of course, come the Tschaikovsky Trio in A minor, there is, in theory, not a lot of space for smiles. The piece is an in memoriam for the composer’s friend, Nikolai Rubinstein. I expected quite a lot of wallow and, since 7 May is a sad anniversary of, I imagine, exactly the same kind for me as it was for Tschaikowsky, I thought I might wallow along without much effort. But this Trio doesn’t wallow. It doesn’t sound particularly sad or woebegone, or, to me, tell any ‘story’. It does, however, allow the three players to go through a fair part of the gamut, and Mr Sitkovetsky did just that. I liked his soulful moments here almost as much as his grins in the Shostakovitch. Hell, I just like him fullstop.
The pianist gets much more of a go in the trio than in the first-part pieces. In those, Wu Qian had been the perfect accompanist, playing with a delightfully gentle touch – gentle fortissimo playing is rather special, I always think -- and melting from the supportive background to the occasional foreground almost without one noticing it. In the Tschaikowsky, she was able to take centre-stage much more frequently, and without ever losing that tempting warmth of tone, to rattle off the composer’s variety of frilly bits and stentorian solos most convincingly.
The trio also brought us Mr Eischenbroich. The Rupert Everett of ‘cellists. The piece allows the cellist some very sweet solo passages, and in these the player’s bow seemed simply to float across the strings, bringing out every ounce of the endearing quality in the music. And when he leaped into Tschaikowsky’s more energetic moments, chevelure-a-tossing, one simply couldn’t have asked for better.
All in all, a first-rate evening, with four first-rate young musicians. The ‘Trout’ simply wasn’t missed for a minute, a grand time was had by all and I‘ll bet there are a few people who will be going home tonight saying ‘Do you know, Shostakovitch can be fun!’ and ‘Gosh, that César Franck fellow..’
I’m one of them.
But what I, myself, have come home remembering most clearly from tonight are Ms Benedetti’s deepest contralto moments in the second movement of the Franck, and Mr Sitkovetsky’s smiles. As well as the fact that I shall be meeting and hearing the whole delightful crowd (plus a hastily flown-in replacement violist) again tomorrow night ..

PS No pictures. I spent half an hour on the web trying to find photos to go with this. No good. Nicola's are either too glossy and slicked-up, or too small, Alexander has dramatically changed his look (I much much prefer the present one) and the trio's pinchable pix are miniature. I shall have to take my camera tonight and try to get a home-made one or two.. Really, you would think such very public people would have nice photos waiting for me to 'borrow'...

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