A reminder of the preparatory hard graft that goes on in the background by the professional musician was vividly supplied by Sunday morning's coffee concert. Our musicians were Tim Horton, whom I last heard at the end of November playing Beethoven and Brahms at this same venue, and Viv McLean, a long-standing favourite on Holywell St. In the green room afterwards I spoke briefly to them and they told me they had gone to school together. This is their first public performance of this programme, and they will be repeating it next Saturday in Sheffield. Mr McLean had picked out four excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite: transcriptions for piano for four hands. When I asked him how he had chosen these four from the eight items of the Suite, he jokingly replied: "They are the easiest ones". They also told me they had had The Rite of Spring in mind and for practice for a few months (VM) and for a few weeks (TH), and they had come together three days earlier for a few hours, and then subsequently again.
Messrs Horton and McLean were still practising hard in the hall when the early birds in the audience arrived and sat on the wall outside the Holywell Music Room in the warm May sunshine. When they embarked on The Nutcracker, I can't say that the piano transcription by Eduard Langer, a friend of Tchaikovsky, especially impressed me. Mr Horton took the lower end of the keyboard and Mr McLean the upper, and they stuck predominantly to the same role, ie the latter playing the melody and the former supplying the rhythm section. The opening 'March' was direct and unadorned, and straightaway the loss of the orchestral textures were evident: here it was the way the theme was passed from strings to wind, then strings to muted trumpets, with flute interventions. In the 'Sugar-Plum Fairy' the glassy sound of the celesta (I have heard a xylophone used instead) is paramount and no piano version, whether via two hands or four, is going to cut much ice against memories of the novelty of that sound. The problem was compounded by the volume level which our duo kept pretty high; here more or less indistinguishable from that of the 'March'. In the conventional orchestration of the 'Coffee/Arab Dance', woodwinds and violins present a languorous melody that sways first to a rocking accompaniment in low strings, then to a persistent drone bass. In this case I thought the piano version more successful, with the persistent lower register rhythm quite hypnotic. The problem with the concluding 'Waltz of the Flowers', another divertissement, even if one puts to one side the loss of a delightful harp scoring, was simply that it was too prolonged.
After the hors d'oeuvre, the entrée – and the contrast in sound and effect was every bit as stark as expected, given that that we were switching from romantic to consistently dissonant music. Our pianists now switched stools at the keyboard, and Mr McLean at the bass end leaned into a series of heavy chords, pregnant with menace, for the opening 'Adoration of the Earth'. The digital interplay of the two pianists was fascinating to observe: necessarily cramped at an instrument made for one player, the score compelled them frequently to encroach on their partner's territory, with the displaced player having to drop one hand. The most obvious features of the music are the insistent beating of tribal drums, the crashing discords, and, most of all, the polyrhythms: the listener's senses are overwhelmed by a swirl of different beats. In the later parts of part 1 Mr Horton drove the tempo forward, the rhythms alternately repeated and then syncopated, into the rough waters of the 'Games of the Rival Tribes' and again in the 'Dance of the Earth'. Stravinsky's theme material relates to obscure Russian pagan, ritualistic legends.
In part 2, the tempo often dropped, an effective contrast with the thunder all around them, and subsequently we proceeded via a series of hammer-blows to finish with a tiny treble trill, a nose-thumbing gesture from the young composer to his public, not universally appreciated since on the tumultuous opening night on the Champs-Élysées, the Comtesse de Pourtales is recorded as having shrieked:
"I am 60 years old, and this is the first time anyone has dared to make fun of me!"
It was a tribute to the dedication and adventurousness of Messrs Horton and McLean that, had the good Comtesse been resurrected in Oxford on Sunday, she would have repeated the very same outburst.