Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Paul Meyer and Erik Le Sage - Queen's Hall 11 August 2008

I know I'm a few days in arrears with my Fringe reviewing, but today Hilary and I went to our first event in this year's official festival: a recital by the French clarinettist Paul Meyer and the pianist Erik Le Sage. And what a recital. The programme was demanding: the two Brahms sonatas began and ended it, with the filling in the sandwich provided by the Martinu Sonatina, the Lutoslawski Dance Preludes and the Berg Four Pieces.

Meyer's Brahms performances were, in Hilary's phrase, "very French", though none the worse for that. His breath control was simply staggering: at the start of the E flat sonata he took the first eight bars in a single breath as far as we could tell. He made a very beautiful sound: Hilary and a couple of fellow clarinettists who were sitting close by spent some time trying to work out what kind of instruments he used. * (Clarinettists in conversation with each other are every bit as nerdy as gun buffs or sports car enthusiasts.)

But the Brahms sonatas, lovely as they are, wouldn't have got me to that recital. I wanted to hear what he did with the other pieces. The Martinu has a lot of notes, but as Hilary (who has performed everything in the programme at one time or another) pointed out, it's the ensemble difficulties that make it an utter killer. Meyer and Le Sage shrugged them off as minor inconveniences, delivering a stunning performance of a piece that's all too rarely heard. The Lutoslawski preludes are much better known, not least because the first one is a Grade VIII (I think) exam piece. Hilary says it's timed at 58 seconds for exam purposes, and wondered how fast Paul Meyer would take it ("it's not possible to take it too fast"). I'll need to check with a watch when the BBC broadcast the concert (on 27 August) but he was well inside that time. The odd-numbered preludes are quick and flashy while the second and fourth are more lyrical; Meyer did full justice to both. Finally (in my list, not the running order) we had the Berg. Intense, complex, distilled down to their essence, his Four Pieces are among the hardest things in the general clarinet repertoire (for the pianist as well). You have to produce the sounds to begin with, over extremes of pitch and dynamics and with several bursts of flutter-tonguing (a bit like blowing a raspberry with a clarinet in your mouth). Then you have to control them musically so that the whole thing makes some kind of sense. I'm not sure I've ever heard a performance that managed to make sense of the four pieces as a single entity (perhaps they simply don't), but today's was one of the ones that made four separate pieces of sense. A tremendous display of musicianship, and the pair were hauled back for a well-deserved encore. They performed the slow movement from the Poulenc sonata. Rather oddly, the big ascending swooshes (very rapid two-octave scales) which come several times failed to loiter on the bottom note each time as long as they should, which if one is familiar with the piece sounds very peculiar indeed. A strange piece of waywardness in an otherwise pretty exemplary recital.

* Buffet Élites, apparently.

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