Enthusiastic applause as Seaton club welcomes talented composer for world première

18:30 22 February 2012


A large audience welcomed three talented young musicians to the fifth concert of this season for Seaton Music Club.

Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), John McMunn (tenor) and Matthew Schellhorn (piano) presented a programme of works for this unusual combination with solo works both for the voice and the horn, and including one piece that should have been premiered here four years ago, and a new piece that was premiered in the concert.

The three players each have an impressive track record of nationally and internationally acclaimed performances in their own right, and the blend and balance in this concert of demanding works provided moments of magic and of deep feeling.

In Franz Schubert’s dramatic song On the River, written in 1828 for a concert in which the composer played the piano part, the sense of separation and death, underlined with modal changes and musical references to Beethoven, was brilliantly presented.

Continuing in romantic vein, four songs by Felix Mendelssohn, including the well-known On Wings of Song, demonstrated John McMunn’s range and versatility. In the other three songs, New Love, Journey and Page’s Song, he evoked moods typical of the age - excitement, anticipation, longing, but also danger and loss.

The first horn solo was Nocturno No7 by Franz Strauss (1822-1905), father of Richard Strauss. Franz himself was a widely respected virtuoso player in Munich. This deceptively simple piece gave Alec Frank-Gemmill the chance to demonstrate the expressive capacity and his mastery of the horn, with superb pianissimo playing, clear articulation and beautiful phrasing.

Jeremy Thurlow’s piece for tenor, horn and piano (2008) Unbidden Visions, should have been premiered four years ago here in Seaton, but a singer’s illness prevented that. It is based on nightmares suffered by the poet John Keats. This performance more than made up for past disappointment; as it started with an insistent rising interval which grew into discordant clashes it clearly suggested the conflicts and violence depicted by the original text.

The first half finished in less threatening mood with Richard Strauss’s early song I hear an alphorn sounding (1878). The horn player did full justice to his obbligato part in this romantic poem and blended well with the melody and piano part.

The main work in the second half was a world première - a piece by English composer Simon Smith (b. 1983) Elegy on … (a Polish boy). Already much respected as a pianist and composer, his full programme notes, together with a translation of the original Polish text (by Krzystof Kamil Baczynski) helped to understand the structure and mood of the piece, which evokes some or the horrors, and the destruction, of life in occupied Poland in 1944. The horn part and the vocal line complementing the piano part, which is far more than an accompaniment, made a moving evocation of the poem. The composer enjoyed enthusiastic applause from the audience at the end of the piece.

The sombre mood continued with another modern work – Volker David Kirchner’s Lamento d’Orfeo (1987). The hunting motifs might have been expected, but the way the undamped piano has to echo the horn and the range of tone and colour were strikingly new.

The second half had started with a piece by Benjamin Britten – Now Sleeps the Crimson Rose, and closed with another. In his Canticle III, based on words by Edith Sitwell, (who reportedly could not sleep after the first performance in 1955 because she was so moved), the combination of the recitative-like text and the horn interludes with the refrain Still falls the rain was beautifully phrased and balanced.

If that was a sombre piece, the enthusiastic audience was treated to Richard Strauss’s I heard an alphorn sounding again as a much appreciated encore.

The next concert in the series in on Thursday, March 15, in Seaton Town Hall, when Christopher Guild will give a piano recital with works from CPE Bach and Beethoven through the 19th century giants Chopin and Liszt to the twentieth century with Debussy and Respighi.

Peter Dawson


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