Sheffield Classical Weekend 2019

‘Women in Music’ was one of the major strands in the programming of the third annual weekend of classical music in Sheffield, a series of wide-ranging concerts and events held in various venues across the city on 8–10 March. Notable for the high standard of the performances, the event also highlighted the number of talented musicians currently based in the area.

The mid-nineteenth century non-conformist Upper Chapel was the austerely elegant setting for an afternoon recital on 9 March by violinist Lucy Phillips and cellist Jonny Ingall, who have been performing as a duo since 2017. They presented four diverse pieces by women composers written in the past two centuries.

The duo’s opening item was Elizabeth Maconchy’s Theme and Variations from 1951. The passionate, sighing theme, stated at the outset, veered between major and minor with a characteristic flair for the dramatic. There followed a set of eight variations which ranged widely in mood. A brief antiphonal toccata (variation I) was followed by an introspective Andante espressivo. The delightfully busy third variation was inventively scored for pizzicato throughout and it led directly into a lyrical, cello-led Molto moderato, which included rich four-part writing. After a brief, scherzo-like variation, full of staccatos and dotted-rhythms came a forceful, Bartókian Allegro vigoroso featuring repeated notes with semitone appoggiaturas. In the Lento serioso seventh variation, the violin gave out the wistful theme over a cello drone chord and an intense duet ensued. The work concluded with a fluent perpetuum mobile that unfolded in ceaseless semiquaver figurations. Tiny scherzando figurations began to punctuate the texture and then, towards the end, the original theme broke through. This made a satisfying denouement to a witty and polished score, interpreted with considerable spirit and artistry by the two performers.

There followed an arrangement for violin and cello of the ‘Andantino’, the seventh of 8 Klavierstücke by the fine pianist and composer Elisabeth von Herzogenberg (1847–1892). This was a short, scherzo-like piece with a quicker, chattering episode at its heart. Its delicate, Bachian counterpoint was subtly rendered by the players.

Premiered in 1918, Rebecca Clarke’s Two Pieces consisted of a warmly lyrical, gently rocking Lullaby followed by a trenchantly rhythmic Grotesque, whose gruff, archaic eccentricities occasionally called to mind the harmonically outlandish concluding ‘Mattachins’ movement of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite of 1926. The performers captured the essence of these engaging brief studies, their insouciant handling of the second piece’s throwaway ending being especially felicitous.

To conclude their recital, Lucy Phillips and Jonny Ingall were joined by the pianist Tom Owen for the Piano Trio by the American composer Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962). Entitled ‘Pale Yellow’ and ‘Fiery Red’ the two movements contrasted strongly with each other yet, in this committed and searching reading, made a satisfying single entity. Sometimes veiled and exploring the higher register of the instruments, the songlike lines of ‘Pale Yellow’ were eloquent and unforced and built to a central climax of marked expressive intensity. ‘Fiery Red’ felt like a sudden release of energy held in check during the previous movement. Rushing semiquavers, syncopations and stalking ostinatos all contributed to an exciting outpouring of vivacity and technical brilliance. This was a cathartic conclusion to a recital of impressive scope and interpretive insight.

Paul Conway, Musical Opinion (October–December 2019 issue)