Yesterday afternoon pianist (and former Head of Music Staff for the San Francisco Opera) John Parr returned to Old First Church to bring another installment in his Basically British programming to the Old First Concerts series. His last appearance was for the fourteenth installment, presented almost exactly a year ago with mezzo Kindra Scharich and violist Paul Yarbrough. For yesterday’s recital Parr was joined only by fellow pianist Peter Grunberg.
The program consisted almost entirely of four-hand performances with Parr and Grunberg both taking relatively brief solo selections. They also shared in introducing the selections and alternated in occupying the primo and second positions at the keyboard. As was the case last year, the “basically” adverb was honored, particularly by Felix Mendelssohn, who was described as having been “adopted” by London (as Joseph Haydn had been during the previous century). The presences of John Field and Percy Grainger were less of a stretch. Field was born in Dublin when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom (although, to be fair, the full name is “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”); and, when Grainger was born in Melbourne, Australia was not yet a country but a collection of colonial states (rather like those thirteen colonies that eventually became the United States of America). That left Peter Warlock, Arnold Bax, and William Walton as the “fully British” representatives on the program.
Before the program began Parr explained that four-hand piano music tended to be more a social matter than a formal concert affair. Four-hand performances figured heavily in the Schubertiads, for which Franz Schubert provided an abundant repertoire; but these were informal social gatherings, rather than concerts. Furthermore, in spite of Schubert’s generous contributions, much of the music consisted of arrangements of orchestral compositions, such as symphonies, allowing people to enjoy the classical repertoire at home before recording technology provided another medium.
The only arrangement performed yesterday was the concluding selection, and this was actually an arrangement of an arrangement. It was the second suite extracted from Façade – An Entertainment, which involved the rhythmic recitation of poems by Edith Sitwell accompanied by flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), alto saxophone, trumpet, percussion, and cello, composed by William Walton. (At the first performance Sitwell herself recited through a megaphone.) Walton later extracted two suites, both of which were arranged for full orchestra; and yesterday’s performance of the second suite was arranged for four hands by Constant Lambert (who had previously set Sacheverell Sitwell’s poem “The Rio Grande” to music).
While Sitwell’s loopy verses were missing, yesterday’s performance captured all of the high spirits Walton had mustered for the original performance, spirits that pervaded almost all of the program. Walton’s suite was the “concluding bookend” for a program that began with Warlock’s Capriol, a suite inspired by the social dances of late sixteenth-century France that Thoinot Arbeau studied and documented in his treatise Orchésographie. (For the record, both Warlock and Arbeau were pen names.) Warlock basically used Arbeau’s melodies as points of departure, adding his own rich harmonies and twentieth-century rhythmic tropes.
Between these two musical romps, Parr and Grunberg offered up two examples of virtuoso variations. The first involved a Russian air, elaborated in a series of rich embellishments by John Field and composed during the quarter-century he spent living in Saint Petersburg. The second was Mendelssohn’s Opus 83A, based on his Opus 83 set of variations in B-flat major for solo piano but with added virtuosity to keep all four hand busy.
The spirit of the “musical romp” returned with Grunberg’s solo performance of Grainger’s “Molly on the Shore;” but he followed it with the more introspective “Colonial Song.” Parr’s solo contribution, Bax’ “The Princess’s Rose Garden,” was similarly introspective. However, in spite of its brevity, this piece captured much of the spirit of Bax’ orchestral tone poems and seemed to involve equal complexity in its multiple layers of differing rhythmic patterns.
All this made for a diverse and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon at Old First. If there were any shortcomings, they arose when enthusiasm would occasionally mask out the core themes. This was most evident in the opening dance in Warlock’s suite, although “Molly on the Shore” would also have benefited from a lighter touch, particularly when the ostinato patterns were first introduced (and before Grainger started going to town with elaborations covering the entire keyboard). Nevertheless, high spirits ruled for most of the afternoon; and, while they were somewhat subdued by Lambert’s nocturne as an encore selection, those spirits probably followed most of the listeners out of Old First’s door into one of those rare bursts of San Francisco sun.