Brighton Festival 2021 classical – Adrian Brendel (cello) & Joanna MacGregor (piano)

REVIEW By Richard Amey

Friday, 21st May 2021, 1:54 pm
Updated Friday, 21st May 2021, 1:56 pm
Joanna MacGregor

Brighton Festival 2021 classical – Adrian Brendel (cello) & Joanna MacGregor (piano) in Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Wednesday 19 May (1pm: 90 minutes, no interval), devised in association with Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra and Strings Attached. Cello Sonatas by Benjamin Britten in C major Op65, Frank Bridge in D minor, César Franck in A major. Also livestreamed.

The Festival’s third live indoor concert in three days since Covid-19 Pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020. Permitted audience: 250 (Dome seating capacity is 1,700) at this initial stage of national lockdown lift on socially distanced indoor concerts.

Masks mandatory, one-way routes. Seating bookable in household groups, sitting together. In the raised-area stalls and upstairs, three empty seats separate those occupied by individuals or groups. Cabaret table-seating on auditorium floor accessed by temporary stairs.

Audience registered for Search and Trace in the queue outside, hand sanitisation and temperature test inside the door, tickets scan-check and bag search (max size A3) in entrance hall. Toilets in use. No cloakroom. Bar drinks orderable pre-concert only, and brought to the buyers in their auditorium seats. Social distancing everywhere.

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Cello music ought to be part of any national wellbeing programme designed to carry a population through and beyond a pandemic. Such is its therapeutic value to so many. You’re going to get a mellower excitement, with plenty of upward striving and downward searching, punctuated with bravura – plus plenty of singing.

I made fewer musical notes at this concert and instead, because cello and piano duo music does this, let it saturate over me along with everyone else.

So to sit back and listen to Adrian Brendel playing his first live public concert for around a year, he told us, and partnering as engaging an artist as Joanna MacGregor, was not only reassuringly luxurious and stimulating: it was this city’s own Kemp Town lady and the city’s new Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra conductor and director tandeming with one of the hottest cellists in chamber music.

Brendel? In case anyone thinks a world classical name in his dotage has clandestinely switched instruments, we are talking here about the London-born, 45-year-old, unsurprisingly tall and hairline-receding son of pianist Alfred Brendel. Adrian’s established career-leaning towards 20th and 21st Century repertoire is a considerable chunk of his international musical identity as a chip off the old block – and here he came two English Sonatas from two decades of the 1900s.

The programme of MacGregor’s own devising, it, she and Brendel Jnr were leaping forward to lift Brighton Festival back onto its bike after its 2020 Covid-caged silence. It presented two lesser-known standard pieces by pacifist composers living near a coast, and a favourite from across the Channel that never fails to send an audience home with a song in their heart.

Significantly, too, in such straitened times when interval-less concerts are pruned to an hour, in this concert MacGregor and Brendel sustained a tremendous level of intensity throughout 90 minutes, no intermission. Not something the professional footballer’ union would allow their Premiership players to undertake!

Brendel, in a dark suit and a charcoal crew-necked top, introduced himself and the music to the audience (he really needed microphone) and in this concert, it was an uncharacteristically quiet MacGregor. Verbally that is. Visually she is never so. Black trousers and heels below a voluminous cream, calf-length open cardigan with long sleeves pushed up, below her bundled-up, unruly curly thatch, this time hazelnut brown, above her bright music-reading glasses.

Action-wise, she is never less than fascinating, with a distinctive playing technique, down-angled fingers, sympathetic body movement, and her piano part in the opening Britten Sonata was absorbing to watch, as indeed the five short sections were to imbibe. Britten’s opening ‘Dialogo’ set out the collaborative stall of chamber music, in which you refer to a pianist as ‘an accompanist’ to your abject peril. Two artists are at work. Neither an artisan. Chamber music doesn’t have an equality problem.

Brighton chamber music fans through the Coffee Concerts are already schooled in Britten, Suffolk’s composition king, and Brendel took on the musical persona of Mstislav Rostropovich to play this 1961 work not only tailored to, but also hugely pleasing to that Russian cello giant.

Brendel spoke of Britten creating a new language, but don’t be scared off by that. He and MacGregor were effortlessly attentive to the pervading lightness of touch and texture. They gave us a playful pizzicato ‘Scherzo’ with its instrumental Q&A, an ‘Elegia’ of final comfort, a ‘Marcia’ nodding ironically to Shostakovich, ending enigmatically, and a concluding ‘Moto Perpetuo’ with a grin and a tongue in the cheek.

What did you think when you discovered John Constable had painted Brighton? The same as when realising Frank Bridge was Brighton’s star composer – likewise feeding off the area’s land and seascapes, and not only Britten’s revered teacher and mentor?

Still to reach his maximum audience appreciation in his home country, even in Bridge’s home city, here were Brendel and MacGregor evangelising. A performance of his Cello Sonata by Joanna Gutowska and Anna Szalucka at St Luke’s lost out to the pandemic last June. So here was a new chance for Brighton to savour it, this time not by Polish but British interpreters, and notably as their concert centrepiece.

Brendel, fully showcased, and MacGregor washed Bridge’s passion across the auditorium in a concentrated outpouring, the composer multi-anguished by the approach of World War I in the first movement, and his view of its first three years in his disturbed, multi-tempo second movement which ends in a positivity perhaps akin to the then hope that such a war would surely end all others.

A light-hearted case was made verbally by Brendel for Franck’s Violin Sonata, which was gifted to his marrying Belgian compatriot virtuoso fiddler Eugène Ysaÿe, being spiritually for the cello. He then went on to prove it in the flesh, in music so excitable its second movement’s emphatic close deceived some of the audience into thinking it was all over.

When it finally was, the winning wedding chanson of its finale – Franck’s canon treatment giving it twice the chance of worming into the mind – sent the listeners humming out into the sunshine like happy bumble bees off to the reception.

Richard Amey