“One must be poor to know the luxury of giving!” George Eliot (in Middlemarch) points us to the social circularity behind a gift: and this hansel given at Snape was a perfect example, with three exceptional musicians, Julius DrakeMark Padmore and Krzysztof Chorzelski, “giving back” their skills in performance in aid of two charities which support the training of young musicians. For Julius Drake, the gift was an exceptionally personal one, as one of the charities benefiting was the Jean Meikle Music Trust, established in memory of Drake’s own mother (who was particularly fond of song and chamber music) to encourage the art of song through performance and education. Accordingly, we were treated to an evening of song by Schubert, Vaughan Williams, Dowland and, of course, Britten, sung by Mark Padmore, while noted violist Chorzelski gave us a gift of his own: a recent composition by Joseph Phibbs, Letters from Warsaw, performed this evening in the presence of the composer, who was commissioned by Chorzelski to write a piece for piano and viola inspired by a treasure-trove of letters by Chorzelski’s grandmother, written from the Warsaw ghetto.

Mark Padmore © Marco Borggreve
Mark Padmore
© Marco Borggreve

Letters from Warsaw is, accordingly, a double gift: the sharing of precious family memories with a wider public through the music of a gifted young composer. Phibbs took a Polish Yiddish lullaby, “Shlof Mayn Fegele”, as his melodic touchstone, and the piece moves with the determination of a life force, alternating between passages of lyrical yearning and harsh, dissonant evocations of the fear of persecution. Mixing a sense of an unknown, tragic future with fragile, innocent hope, Phibbs continuously varies the balance between piano and viola: here the piano seems to cast brightness onto the dark viola theme, there the viola seems to refine something from the piano’s shadows – the piece evolves as a natural conversation between the instruments. And, like a family conversation, Letter from Warsaw flows from memory to grief, from grief to anger, and onwards through despair and terror towards warmer harmonic ground in which the lullaby finally asserts itself with clear vulnerability. Chorzelski excavated the deepest emotions of this arresting, beautiful and haunting piece in a memorably searing performance. Turning his skilful bow to Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei in the second half, Chorzelski made the most of its sensationally beautiful, sinuous and savoury melodies, inspired by two traditional Hebrew melodies.  

Mark Padmore’s contributions were at their most spectacular in Britten’s Winter Words, each of which came across as a perfect narrative moment. These short examples of fabulously vivid word-and-sound-painting point to Britten’s conspicuous gifts as a composer of opera, able to evoke a whole world of ideas through the brilliant juxtaposition of word and chord. The dry, thoughtful and sometimes bitterly comic tone of Thomas Hardy’s poetry seems to fit naturally into Britten’s elegantly lean settings, while Padmore’s expressive lyrical tenor seemed to spring to full-bodied life as he attacked these songs with the courage, liquid power and delicacy of touch they demand. Padmore portrayed the first seven with masterful forensic accuracy, bringing magical poignancy to The Choirmaster’s Burial, and confident flourish for Proud Songsters. However, in Before Life, a few problems started to creep back in which seemed to dog Padmore’s Schubert and Vaughan Williams interpretations elsewhere, sounding a little tight in some places, thin in others, while Dowland’s Flow, my tears was more heavy than ethereal.

Julius Drake’s exquisite piano accompaniment was a constant joy in a performance which, characteristically, always did more than support, yet somehow never overwhelmed or eclipsed, his fellow musicians. Drake’s exceptional touch welcomes us into the sound world of each piece with lucid sincerity, with passages of vibrant emotional expression giving way to calm elegance or tender pathos.

Alongside the Jean Meikle Trust, the other cause of the evening was Snape’s own Britten–Pears Young Artist Programme, founded by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears to provide training for young musicians in a regular series of residential projects and masterclasses at Snape. This scheme is treasured and celebrated not only for the remarkable professionals who contribute their skills to the next generation of classical music talent (this summer will see masterclasses at Snape from Dame Sarah Connolly, Christian Curnyn and Anne Sofie von Otter, among many other international stars), but notably for its crucial residential component: the fully subsidised programme allows young musicians to spend uninterrupted periods at Snape learning more, and honing their performance technique, while crucially having the time and space to absorb those lessons fully. Whether or not the graduates go on to reach career heights like those of Drake, Chorzelski and Padmore, these programmes offer a wealth of musical experience to inspire the next generation with a profound, technically adept, and emotionally rich encounter with music: a gift well worth giving.

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