The recital on Wednesday 19th October in the MMS drew a full house for the combination of our own Richard Saxel and the world-renowned violinist Madeleine Mitchell. The concert ended with an Elgar encore (‘Salut d’Amour’) and began with Elgar’s ‘Chanson de Matin’ and ‘Chanson de Nuit’, the darker mood of the latter resinously fed with string tone. Madeleine Mitchell’s portamenti in these works were conspicuously stylish and unexaggerated: the legacy perhaps of her famous meetings with Menuhin who was patron of her Red Violin Festival.
It was Richard Saxel who suggested the Delius Second Violin Sonata to Ms Mitchell, and this was the first time she had performed it in public. The rhapsodic ecstasy of her playing suggested that it will not be the last, if concert promoters allow. Madeleine Mitchell and Richard Saxel gave interesting and illuminating spoken introductions to most of the pieces on the programme, notably here on the influence of Delius’s time in Florida on his blues-related harmonies. Many in the audience might have been unaware that Duke Ellington was a massive fan of Delius (as was George Shearing and Mel Torme).
Madeleine Mitchell is especially known for commissioning works or having works dedicated to her by contemporary composers, thus in many ways the highlight of the evening was her spiritual playing of James MacMillan’s ‘Kiss on Wood’; a composer recently commissioned by the Pope himself to write a new Mass setting. The violinist’s linking of this piece to MacMillan’s ‘Seven Last Words from the Cross’ was especially pertinent to the mysterious ending in which Richard’s diminuendo on bare notes was mesmerising. All five of the shorter pieces in the programme feature on the violinist’s much-lauded 2007 CD ‘Violin Songs’ (Divine Art label), including what was a world première recording of a lost Frank Bridge piece (‘Morceau Caracteristique’) played in the concert with swagger and wonderful lyricism in the very demanding double-stopped trio section.
For the second half Madeleine Mitchell changed into one of her signature red dresses and fully vindicated the words in the booklet notes to ‘Violin Songs’ that “slower, beautiful music can be balm for the soul” in her performance of the ‘Meditation’ from Massenet’s opera ‘Thaïs’. The fiddler needs to balance the sensual and sublime here, as during this orchestral intermezzo a beautiful and pleasure-loving courtesan decides to leave her life of luxury and pleasure and find salvation through God to follow Athanaël, a Cenobite monk, into the desert. As my former colleague Alan Smith might have said, “It was all go in those days.”
The climax of the programme was the third of Brahm’s violin sonatas, the stormy D minor. In the finale the tremendous strength of the violinist’s bow arm ensured there was no over-domination by the piano, though this was also thanks to the sensitivity of Richard Saxel: a specialist accompanist is often preferable in duos to a pianist who normally only plays solo recitals and Richard’s reading of a letter from the dedicatee Elisabeth von Herzogenberg underlined his scholarly sense of historical style that underpins his musicianship. Both players ensured that the third movement kept its exquisite delicacy intact and in the Adagio the mood seemed almost Elgarian. After the concert Madeleine Mitchell explained that, although she had been playing the Brahms sonatas all her life, with such great and rich music every performance was different, and the context of a recital programme was very much part of that.
Let us hope for another Cranleigh concert soon from this duo: the Elgar sonata with more Brahms; the Prokofiev sonatas; the Fauré sonatas and Debussy; the Ravel and Poulenc; John Ireland? Make that several concerts.