Matthew Schellhorn is an interesting pianist who specialises in the works of Messiaen, and having the French composer’s wife pour compliments on your playing is about as high as accolades come.
His thoughtfully devised Wigmore Hall recital included some rarely performed works by Rameau and Daquin and a world premiere from Ian Wilson.
The concert opened up with Mozart imitating Handel’s style in his Suite (K399), so it was all very stately and played with a good dose of pomp. Mozart is most luminous when he’s freewheeling from one thought to the next, so with older devices like the fugue (where you have to constantly re-state your initial idea) he’s not at his witty best.
The following four items were the early peak of the night. Daquin’s Le Coucou zipped along at a friendly pace with unobtrusive cuckoo calls peppering the proceedings. Rameau’s Le Rappel des oiseaux (also written in the first half of the 1700s) was equally fresh and inventive but it was probably Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes that won the day. It was genuinely evocative and mysterious, like letting a distantly familiar flavour develop on the tongue. Rapid passages seemed to have no momentum and fizzled out into sombre, resting lulls. Being such a hot night, the staff must have left the front doors open, because towards the end of the piece I could hear some actual birdsong mingling with the music. The next piece was Blackbird by Dutilluex and I loved it. Full of unexpected, breezy humour.
The meat of the concert came next: Messiaen’s infamous Petites esquisses d’oiseaux, or Little sketches of birds. It’s uncompromising, madcap music and authentically eccentric. For those who may not know the piece, it’s like listening to a recording of birdcalls (as opposed to more melodious birdsongs) but at a much slower speed. I’m definitely on Messiaen’s side in general, but two thoughts were nagging me during this performance. Firstly it’s all too stony-faced; for an aural depiction of garden birds where is the cheekiness? Or the funny walks and jerky dances? There are plenty of unpredictable rhythms but nothing light-hearted. The other thing that dawned on me during this extended reverie was the fact that it very quickly gets ‘samey’.
Following the interval there was a world premiere by Ian Wilson. It was grim. Apart from the poaching of the opening of Scriabin’s 9th Piano Sonata this was almost exclusively an imitation of Messiaen: ethereal chords drifting pointlessly; low, ponderous notes plopping occasionally; high tinkly bits; scary chords (same as the ethereal ones, but louder) left to hang on and on. It was a lot like a parody of a horror film, rounded off by what sounded like a hoot of laughter from somewhere in the audience.
After that came some Chopin Nocturnes and his Scherzo No. 4. But enough damage was done by Wilson’s music to put me off and I had almost completely switched off by that stage. Even if the nocturnes didn’t seem to smoulder, by the middle of the final scherzo I knew at least that this was masterful playing.