Saturday 13th July 2019 – Ukrainian virtuosity at Glynde Place.

To Glynde for the third concert of this year’s Glynde Place Concert Series. For the fifth year running Glynde Place, an attractive Elizabethan House, has hosted a short series of superb chamber music events. The quality of the playing is all but guaranteed as the musicians are members of Radio 3’s New Generation Artists Scheme. Looking through previous years programmes MAE particularly recalls Elvind Holtsmark (Viola), Beatrice Rana (piano) playing the Goldberg Variations, and Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano) accompanied by Joseph Middleton with her mother Madelaine Newton reading poetry. The owners Francis and Caroline Hampden also allow concertgoers to picnic in the beautiful gardens beforehand, with a wonderful view, and without all of the picnic one-upmanship of the Glyndebourne festiva;

This concert was up there with the best. 31 year old Violinist Aleksey Semenenko is a fiercely talented musician who, while they acknowledge his gifts, has been dividing critics for much of his career. In 2014 Brian Schuth of the Boston [USA] Musical Intelligencer reviewed his concert at the Gardner Museum and recognised his outstanding technique whilst sticking to the strategy of asking about his “expressivity and musicality”. At the end of the Glynde Place concert a fellow member of the audience was much enervated by the way so many young musicians go for virtuosic fireworks at the expense of musicality. Well, I’m sorry, maybe virtuosity is something that scares some people in the Anglo-Saxon world. Your man has stopped attending Eastbourne’s own Norah Sande Award piano competition because, on two occasions, the judges have eschewed the qualities of outstandingly talented and flamboyant pianists and have chosen instead players who were, by comparison, merely competent and workmanlike. Those who were lucky enough to see Evgeny Kissin, the great Russian (/British/Israeli) pianist in his pomp will know the excitement such panache can generate. Fortunately the vast majority of the audience on this memorable Sussex summer evening was bowled over and Semenenko and his excellent accompanist Inna Firsova received a well-deserved standing ovation.

The concert started pleasingly with a very pertinent spoken introduction by Semenenko, giving us an indication of the exhilarating ride to come. The first half consisted of two Violin Sonatas, coincidentally each composer’s second and both in G Major. The Grieg, written in 1867 was a relatively gentle introduction. Written during the Norwegian master’s honeymoon it is a cheerful piece based on folk tunes, but still not without some tricky passages. With the Ravel sonata, composed in the mid nineteen twenties, things stepped up several gears. A lyrical first movement was deceptively simple with Semenenko producing interesting effects by tapping the hair of the bow on the strings, and it included a very fast high passage. The second movement is heavily based on the blues. Apparently Ravel heard W.C. Handy (composer of the St. Louis Blues) when played in Paris at this time and the sonata includes strumming effects very like a banjo. The very fast playing of the final movement (including vigorous pizzicato) gave some indication of the fireworks to come after the interval.

A beautiful piece, unknown to me, one of Eugene Ysaye’s solo violin sonatas (No. 6), began the second half. Before this Semenenko again spoke to the audience and disagreed with the programme which commented on the piece’s “turbulent middle section” saying that “everything else is turbulent - except the middle part”, and so it proved. Each of the violin sonatas was written for a different violinist e.g. Kreisler. The sixth, in the form of a habanera, is dedicated to the Spanish virtuoso Manuel Quiroga (see clips of him on YouTube) who sadly never played it in public. In Semenenko’s capable hands the piece’s long lines sang out. He followed this with what he called “a couple of relatively slow pieces” and advised us to “try not to fall asleep”, though there was little fear of that with such a high standard of playing. We had Wagner’s Albublatt” (Album Leaf” which was elegiac and pure romance, then Tchaikovsky’s Romanza in F minor –Song without Words. Pianist Inna Firsova played the melancholic piano introduction invitingly before Semenenko’s wonderfully pure tone captivated us with the melody. To finish we needed something on a grander scale and we weren’t disappointed. Szymanovski’s Myth: La Fontaine d’Arethuse of 1915 is a real tour de force. It starts very atmospherically and quite sedately and I made a note that it might have been better programmed earlier in the evening. How wrong I was. About half way through its six minutes or so it explodes into a range of extraordinary and fiendishly difficult effects involving pizzicato, different kinds of bowing, and changed bridges. Whilst it is funny in places, it concludes with a wild, whirling folk dance from hell that is anything but. Standing ovation time. I think time was overrunning so we didn’t get the programmed Tzigane by Ravel but, instead, as an encore, as a distinct contrast to the Szymanovski, we were treated to the jaunty late Victorian drawing room tones of Elgar’s La Capricieuse. A near-perfect evening of music making in delightful surroundings played by a young violinist of whom I’m sure we shall hear much more, supported by a young pianist who knows when to be an equal partner and when to accompany. (*****)


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