Review – Emma Purslow & Eleanor Kornas

Wesel Bollington Chamber Concerts – Saturday 9th April 2022

Review written by Donald Judge

Pablo Picasso said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” To remain an artist, maybe it’s important to retain a childlike sense of simplicity and wonder. In 1964, a friend of Picasso’s casually wondered if he could provide artwork for a new edition of Shakespeare from Cambridge University Press. Amused, Picasso asked what Shakespeare looked like. On seeing an image that purports to be the Bard, he took a black felt-tipped pen, drew a few squiggles on A4 paper – in Paul Klee’s words, taking a line for a walk, much as a child might – and there was the very essence of Shakespeare as many imagine him, yet strikingly original and unlike any other depiction. Picasso’s three cartoon sketches of Shakespeare took less than 5 minutes each. One became CUP’s cover image. In 2001, one of the other two sold at a Southeby’s auction for $26500.

Moments in childhood can be inspirational and life changing. Picasso’s father was an artist, and his mother claimed the boy’s first word wasn’t Mama but piz, short for lápiz, the Spanish for pencil. On the morning of this concert, a small boy walked into Liverpool Central Library, a striking 21st century space in a Victorian stone edifice, and shouted “Wow!” Luckily, no one, parents, public or even librarians responded with “Shh!” He may have decided there and then to be an architect. At the age of three or four, Jacqueline du Pré heard a cello on the radio and announced her determination to make the same sounds. At some point in her childhood, Emma Purslow was wowed by a violin. Luckily, it was soon enough – violinists really need to start young. While still at primary school in Bollington, Emma performed one of the works in Saturday’s concert, the Sonatina Dvořák wrote for his own 10 year old son Toník. The piano part was intended for Toník’s older sister Otilie, a role played on Saturday by Eleanor Kornas. She and Emma could have been taken for sisters, shared an obvious delight in their music making, and had devised a programme that was both reflective of childhood and musically sophisticated. It was immediately evident how much care and imagination had gone into their stylish and characterful interpretations.

The programme grew from their wish to perform Impressions of Childhood by the Romanian George Enescu, a prodigious composer, violinist and pianist by the age of five. Written late in his life, it depicts sometimes strange, even disturbing, memories. There’s virtuosic writing for both instruments, and plenty of opportunity for special effects, and yet one of the most arresting sections has violin and piano playing an identical simple unison line. It was preceded by, if not quite the ridiculous to the sublime, the witty Toy Soldier’s March by Kreisler, and a hauntingly beautiful Cradle Song by Grażyna Bacewicz, both composers accomplished violinists. endemically             

Dvořák’s first musical memory was probably of his father playing the zither at the home yards from the new railway, whose sound is briefly heard in the Sonatina. It may be simpler and briefer than his Violin Sonata, but that in itself is a challenge to composers. The best music written about or for children – Ravel, Benjamin Britten and Peter Maxwell Davies spring to mind – speaks equally to adults and retains the composer’s unique voice. This was unmistakably Dvořák speaking, in Czech with the occasional touch of the New World where he wrote it. 

The official finale was Alan Ridout’s Ferdinand the Bull. Ridout decided at an early age that he must be a musician, something his father resisted, as too many, including Handel’s, have done. But parental opposition can be as great a spur to following a dream as parental encouragement. In an ideal world, every violinist would play this piece, and every child and adult would know it. Emma had recruited a family friend, Mike Bell, his storytelling fondly remembered from her childhood, to narrate it. Mike is an accomplished baritone who has performed Schubert song recitals at the Arts Centre. Here he not only narrated with absolute clarity, but had re-written the script to give it a more topical flavour than the 1970s original. There were brilliant rhymes, laugh out loud jokes, and audience participation. With no piano part, Eleanor expertly took on the Laser Display Screen – “Clue” fans will understand. The violin part is a virtuosic tour de force. Like Mike’s narrations, it has just enough of a Spanish accent, avoiding clichés. Ridout succeeds where some fail in ensuring the narrator’s words come across. Speaker and violin often alternate, and when they perform together, the violin part is deliberately simpler.

This was an evening of many and varied delights, and a very welcome sixth concert. The warm reception made an encore inevitable. Emma and Eleanor obliged not with more virtuosity, but with a Ukrainian folk lullaby. A reminder that especially in Ukraine, but in far too many parts of the world, children’s lives and dreams are blighted, and growing up at all is at risk. But in challenging circumstances, whether war, deprivation or a global pandemic, music continues to inspire. One concert in the just announced 2022-2023 BCC season will feature Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, composed and first performed in freezing conditions on inadequate instruments in a Nazi Prisoner of War camp in 1941.


Postscript

I hope readers will enjoy or at least forgive a first person recollection of Alan Ridout. In September 1973 I embarked on the final year of a music degree at Cambridge, with two new supervisors. In the Michaelmas and Lent terms I was taught all I needed to know about acoustics by Dr Nick Shackleton, a geologist. Famed for sartorial dressing down, his encounter with the Queen when he was eventually knighted for services to Earth Sciences was a rare occasion when he wasn’t wearing a jumper and sandals. Lessons were just as informal, at his home, in a room whose walls were adorned not with rocks, but with his other passion, historical clarinets and basset horns. Home comforts included coffee and an armchair worn threadbare by students and cats, which Nick explained was acoustically the perfect place for me to enjoy his latest LPs of that new phenomenon, historically informed performances – of which his housemate Christopher Hogwood was already a leading light.

Alan Ridout, my composition supervisor, visited Cambridge from Canterbury on Wednesdays, as often as the weather and the trains permitted. He made me welcome and at ease in a spartan room provided by King’s College. I’d been composing since I was 12, starting on a school musical trip to Austria when I bought a Notenheft – a music manuscript book – in Salzburg. I learned by studying and playing other people’s music, and persuading friends to play mine, backed up by ABRSM Theory and that amazing slim volume, Orchestral Technique, by one of Alan’s teachers, Gordon Jacob. Alan remarked: “It’s the Bible!” I had no aspirations to be a professional musician of any sort, and had never had a formal composition lesson. I didn’t get any from Alan. Teaching composition is a curious process anyway, with no one quite sure what to do or how. The technical aspects, whether the dots on the page are playable, informative, and legible (in those days everything was handwritten) exercise most teachers more than style or content. Some of Alan’s contemporaries pushed students towards the avant-garde, but he’d left that behind for a more pragmatic approach, which suited me fine. His role was partly as a mentor and partly to verify that everything in my portfolio was my own unaided work completed during those two terms. He avoided aiding me except by general and subtle suggestions, and I still have the scores where he pencilled his monogram for the assessors, elegantly joining the letters AR with the first stroke elongated. I have always had to check anything I write down on a piano or computer, often being surprised or disappointed by what I hear. So I was astonished at Alan’s ability to “hear” music that was only on paper, to tell me what he liked about the ideas, the structure, how instruments were used, and to question, always gently, my intentions. 

At the time, jazzy cantatas on Biblical subjects were suddenly popular – Captain Noah, Holy Moses!, Jonah Man Jazz and Swinging Samson were initially for children but were taken on by adults like The King’s Singers. I wrote words and music for my, own based on the Creation, entitled Genesis. Alan chuckled in what I thought were all the right places, before saying: “I’ve just written a piece called Genesis.” I went to see it, an impressive church opera with words by Patric Dickinson, performed in the splendour of Ely Cathedral. Only one brief mention of it can be found online: maybe, like my occasional and less ambitious efforts over the years, it got one performance on a specific occasion, and we were both happy and grateful. It was rare for Alan to talk about himself or his music. One day I took along a string quartet movement and told him a friend who had led the Leicester Schools Symphony Orchestra had played the 1st violin part through. LSSO was famed for its brilliant performances of music it commissioned from contemporary composers. Alan enjoyed several fruitful collaborations, but he told me he worried that the young players weren’t experiencing the great classics – Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky – while playing far too much, in his own words, “rubbish by Bryan Kelly and me.” 

Like Nick, Alan was supportive about more than his brief. As part of my finals, I had to give a short piano recital. The University didn’t provide a teacher, and I hadn’t had lessons for three years. I was content and confident with what I did most of – accompanying singers and instrumentalists, chamber music, and playing for many hours of ballet classes to supplement the student grant – and much less happy playing alone. Alan approved of my choices, all music I loved. The B flat minor Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 of Bach’s 48, Haydn’s great E flat sonata, and some numbers from Villa Lobos’ A prole do bebê(inspired by childhood). Anxiety increased when I learned that I had to perform them one morning at 8.30 am. George Guest, the legendary organist and choirmaster at St John’s, and one of the examiners, told me I’d be fine if I prepared myself half an hour beforehand with a stiff Scotch. Alan thought an early night, a good sleep and a clear head were preferable, advice I followed. At our final meeting, having pencilled his monogram on all my scores, he happily agreed to listen to my recital. Afterwards, he said, “I’m no pianist…” (he was far too modest to say he’d achieved Grade VIII aged 12 after three years of lessons). “It all sounds fine to me, but if I might just make one observation…” His observation was something no piano teacher (or anyone) had ever told me, about trying to achieve a brighter sound and more clarity by making the melody and bass lines stronger and the middle parts less so. I tried it and found it surprisingly easy. Alan’s wise and tactful words transformed my playing not just for that recital, but permanently.  

Happily, there are performances of some of Alan’s prolific catalogue of music available on disc and online. I wish more of it was performed live. DJ