Conchord Festival 2016 – Piano 4-hands afternoon concert

A mile or so along the river from where I live in Teddington, SW London, the attractive 18th-century church of St Mary’s in Twickenham sits on a grassy plinth overlooking the Thames. And for the weekend of 10-12 June 2016, it became the home of a new chamber music festival, directed by Emily Pailthorpe of the London Conchord Ensemble.

Regional and local classical music festivals are such a good idea. They take music out of formal metropolitan concert venues and into communities, forging important and lasting connections between musicians, local people and venues, and many attract world class performers, as well as encouraging young musicians. Conchord Festival boasted an impressive roster of performers, including actor Simon Callow and baritone Roderick Williams. I was delighted to attend the Saturday afternoon concert, music for piano duo performed by Alasdair Beatson and Julian Milford.

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The theme of the concert was dance and the connecting thread was Sergei Diaghilev, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, who collaborated most famously with Igor Stravinsky in the staging of The Rite of Spring, the piano 4-hands version of which concluded the concert. The afternoon opened with Debussy’s Prelude à l’Aprés Midi d’un Faun, a symphonic poem which formed the basis of the ballet Afternoon of a Faun, choreogaphed by Nijinsky and staged by the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1912. The piano duo version was transcribed by Ravel and loses nothing of its sinuous lines and erotic textures in the piano reduction. Beatson and Milford’s performance was languorous, nuanced and sensuous, perfect for a humid summer’s afternoon. This was followed by four of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, a reminder of the popularity of music for piano duo during the nineteenth-century and a foot-tapping musical palette-cleanser before the main event, The Rite of Spring, which followed the interval.

When The Rite of Spring opened in Paris in May 1913 the avant-garde nature of the music and the staging caused a near-riot in the audience. The piece still has the power to shock over 100 years later, with its narrative of savage rituals and human sacrifice. Stravinsky first performed his own four-handed version of The Rite of Spring with Debussy, the arrangement created to accompany rehearsals for the first performance of the ballet. This music was born on the piano, written in a tiny room, so Stravinsky tells us, on an upright piano, and it contains an exhilarating and precarious excitement. Forget the orchestral version: here is a work of raw energy, convulsive rhythms and pagan exoticism, aptly described by Debussy as “a beautiful nightmare”. It remains a vertiginously challenging work for piano duet, straining the medium to its limits. Beatson and Milford rose to the challenge with aplomb, managing pianistic gymnastics with ease and creating a riot of colour, texture, rhythmic drive and narrative. The famous stamped-out chords were percussive and metallic, redolent of heavy machinery, pistons and steam engines. (Let us not forget this piece received its first performances as Europe was preparing for the most mechanised and destructive war in its history.) This was truly an enthralling journey.

Next year’s Conchord Festival takes place from 9-11 June 2017.