ConcertMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Music Serenade – Ripon Cathedral

Musicians: Andrew Long (violin), Robert Ashworth (horn), Ian Buckle (piano)

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The Cathedral Concert Society is clearly a lively and successful institution. Monthly concerts during the Winter draw more than sizeable audiences to the magnificent setting of the spacious Quire (the cathedral favours the old spelling) of Ripon Cathedral – and the acoustic’s excellent, too.

The November guests were the Music Serenade, one of the many active musical offshoots of Opera North and one that has existed for 40 years, as long as the opera company itself. It has a floating population, but for Ripon the musicians were Robert Ashworth, principal horn, and Andrew Long, violin and Associate Leader, both of the Orchestra of Opera North, and pianist Ian Buckle, much involved in many of the company’s enterprises. 

The unique feature of the concert was the performance of Humphrey Procter-Gregg’s Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano, dating from 1936. P-G, as he was widely known, was a key figure in the development of musical education at Manchester University and the Royal College of Music, but is now generally forgotten as a composer. Andrew Long and Ian Buckle are doing something about that, with a CD of P-G’s violin sonatas due out, the best recording of them there is, as Long pointed out – it’s the only one! Incidentally, the musicians’  introductions to the pieces were a welcome feature of the concert.

So are we about to witness an explosion of interest in Procter-Gregg? The comparison is always made to Delius, Long hinted at Elgar, certainly, the romantic lyricism and hints of pastoral were thoroughly English. So, bearing in mind the rise in popularity of Gerald Finzi’s music in recent years, why not Humphrey Procter-Gregg in the next few? His was a less distinctive voice, but the violin sonata proved a thoroughly attractive piece, pleasingly traditional without being derivative.

Perhaps the dramatic sections carry less conviction that the lyrical passages, but, in an accomplished reading of the sonata, Long and Buckle made the most of the contrasts at the start of the third movement. After two movements characterised by a free-wheeling romanticism and charming melodies, the piano’s rhythmically powerful solo led to an unexpected principal melody for violin, light and dancing – at least at first.

If the Procter-Gregg piece was the most enterprising choice in the programme, Brahms’ Opus 40 Trio, the only work in the second half, was the most memorable musically. From the profound lyricism of the opening Andante, unique in the first movements of Brahms’ chamber music for its reflective song-like quality, to the magnificently ebullient final Allegro, the Music Serenade delivered a performance that combined passion with subtlety – and, ultimately a joyfully energetic sense of release.

Listening to the virtuoso horn playing in the Brahms Trio – with echoes of the hunting field and written for the natural horn – formed an interesting contrast to the first short piece in the programme. In his Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano Robert Schumann revelled in the opportunities afforded by the newly invented valved horn, creating a piece that exploited its full range and posed difficulties for the soloist that caused it to be deemed virtually unplayable at the time. So Robert Ashworth gave us a kind of demonstration of the development of the horn repertoire – odd that the more “advanced” piece was written 16 years before the other.

Brahms and Schumann, however, thought as one in the Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, beautifully played by Ian Buckle. Brahms took Schumann’s delicate and poignant theme and treated it initially with great restraint. The 14 variations presented joyful and/or aggressive moments, but ultimately the broken fragments of the final variation surely reflected Brahms’ compassion for Schumann’s mental collapse.

Reviewed on 12 November 2018 | Image: Tom Arber

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