Kate-S-and-Steven-DKate Semmens, soprano & Steven Devine, harpsichord. Weymouth Sunday Concerts, 10 March 2019

When I think of the Notebooks of Anna Magdalena Bach, I imagine a weighty tome, leather bound, filled with album leaves of handwritten music on thick creamy vellum.

Anna Magdalena was the second Mrs Bach and was her husband’s helpmeet, looking after his children and assisting in copying out music part for performance. The two surviving collections of music which have come to be called Anna Magdalena’s Notebooks contain works for keyboard and voice, written by her husband and others, used for teaching and for entertainment. The works are small-scale and domestic and offer an intriguing glimpse into the home life of the Bach family: the children studying their keyboard and composition techniques and the entire family enjoying making music together. Interleaved with verse songs, polonaises and minuets are early workings of pieces which Bach later turned into works regarded today as some of the finest in the entire classical canon, including the Aria which opens the Goldberg Variations and Schlummert ein which was developed into Cantata 82.

Kate Semmens and Steven Devine presented a charming programme of works for voice and keyboard drawn from the Notebooks of Anna Magdalena. Performing on an instrument by Colin Booth, copied from a 1710 harpsichord made near where Bach lived, Steven brought vibrancy and elegance to the music, and for me, someone normally to be found at piano concerts, it was refreshing and instructive to hear a harpsichordist’s approach to aspects such as voicing and articulation. Despite the dynamic limitations of the instrument, Steven brought richness of tone and texture, most keenly felt in an uplifting performance of the Italian Concerto BWV 971.

Kate’s soprano voice is warm, expressive and colourful with clear diction and fine sense of drama and contrast. There was a lovely sense of synergy and understanding between these two musicians which highlighted the intimacy of the music, and both musicians introduced the works on the programme, engagingly setting them in context. This was a intriguing insight into the home life of JS and AM Bach and a delightful afternoon of fine music, beautifully presented.


Weymouth Sunday Concerts are presented by Weymouth Music Club. Now in its 74th season, the club hosts six concerts per year on Sunday afternoons at Weymouth Bay Methodist Church. Further information

Meet the Artist interview with Kate Semmens

Meet the Artist interview with Steven Devine

For this concert, I exchanged the deep red plush seats of London’s Wigmore Hall for my first visit to Plush Festival, held in the tiny village of Plush, deep in Thomas Hardy country in Dorset. Here in 1995, far from the madding crowd, Adrian Brendel established the festival in a spirit of collaboration and shared music-making. A deconsecrated church, which sits in the arcadian grounds of Plush Manor (bought by the Brendel family in the early 1990s as a bucolic retreat) is the venue for the concerts. Its generous acoustic and small size make it perfect for intimate chamber music and solo recitals; in addition, visitors may sit in on open rehearsals.

I’d known about the village of Plush (the pub, the Brace of Pheasants does a good Sunday lunch) and the Brendel connection for years, but this was my first visit to the Festival – part of my determination to seek out quality classical music in Dorset, my new home since I moved from London in May.

The drive to Plush suggests one is entering a special place. Leaving Dorchester (Hardy’s “Casterbridge”), I left the A-road and passed through the villages of Piddletrenthide and Piddlehinton (“Longpuddle”). Then a sharp right turn and up a steep hill and there was a sign to Plush Festival, guiding the way. The village is chocolate-box-pretty, with the pub at its heart. The signs to the festival pointed beyond the centre of the village and a winding, tree-lined lane takes you into the grounds of Plush Manor. A helpful gentleman guided me to park my car in an adjacent field and asked if I’d been to Plush before.

Outside the church, small groups of people lolled in foldout camping chairs or lounged on picnics rugs. Some were even enjoying a picnic ahead of the concert. A small bar offered wine, prosecco and soft drinks, and there was a bunting-draped stall next door selling CDs. The murmur of conversation was accompanied by birdsong. A friend texted (before my mobile reception disappeared) to say he was at Glyndebourne for the afternoon, and I thought there was a touch of the Glyndebourne experience, in microcosm, at Plush – though minus the dinner jackets: people were dressed casually. After all, this was a lunchtime on a sunny Saturday in August…..

10567-b5caaf2a50ce50da7f81d22244175770The soloist for this concert was Filippo Gorini, a prize-winning young Italian pianist. His programme was unexpected for a weekend lunchtime recital – Schumann’s Geistervariationen (“Ghost” Variations) and Beethoven’s mighty Hammerklavier Sonata – but Kat Brendel, Festival Director, told me afterwards that this was “the programme he wanted to play”. It proved a bold and successful choice.

Schumann composed his Ghost Variations in 1854, shortly before he was committed to a mental asylum. It was his final piece, dedicated to his beloved Clara, and the work is freighted with melancholy and tenderness. Filippo Gorini caught the tragic intensity and intimate poignancy of the work. Understated, elegant and restrained, one felt Gorini fully appreciated that Schumann is a composer who wears his heart on his sleeve; the final variation ended on a whisper, with Gorini allowing the sound to fade into the stillness of the church.

Beethoven, by contrast, is at his most declamatory in the Hammerklavier Sonata, which opens with a daring leap across the keyboard and a rollicking fanfare motif. This was masterfully shaped by Gorini who brought energy and vivid colour to the music. At its heart is the Adagio, a huge slow movement of infinite serenity and profundity which in Gorini’s hands felt like a stand-alone piece of music. Time was suspended, and while a butterfly fluttered, agitato, around the church, nothing could break Gorini’s concentration – nor the audience’s (who were as committed as any Wigmore audience). This movement, played with an intense concentration which echoed Gorini’s sensitive approach to the Schumann, has an almost Schubertian harmonic trajectory and introspection, with the improvisatory qualities of a Chopin Nocturne. Out of this other-worldly space came a finale of restless physicality.

Chatting afterwards, I mentioned to one audience member that I felt Gorini had the ability to make one forget a pianist was actually present during the performance. It’s a rare talent, and his lack of ego or unnecessary gesture undoubtedly contributed to this impressive performance.

If you think great music is only to be found in the metropolis, think again: Sir Andras Schiff returns to Plush Festival tomorrow for a sold out concert, and past seasons have enjoyed performances by Paul Lewis and Till Fellner.


This years Plush Festival continues from 14-16 September. Full details here

 

 

 

Header image: courtesy of Plush Manor