The joint Performance evening on February 27th in the Merriman Music School, with 21 performances from 15 musicians, tested the stamina of the audience, but those who were able to stay were treated to some exceptional Debussy playing by Millie Mazzone (’Les sons…’ from Preludes Book One) and Ben Wili (‘Clair de Lune’). Millie’s ear for the perfumed harmonies was exceptional in this beautifully limpid reading which earned her first prize. Ben’s shimmering playing14421_300 was only just eclipsed by his organ playing (Bach’s BWV 553) with its clear articulation and well-judged phrasing: he won second prize for this. Third prize went to another Debussy pianist: Reuben Gray gave us the first of the Arabesques. I loved every minute of this indulgent, slightly eccentric reading which was liquid and leisurely. Richard Saxel told me afterwards that Reuben learns pieces by ear, not from the score, which to me is an especially remarkable gift, though I wondered if it was the Samson Francois recording he was using to learn his interprataion, given its strong character.

The seven other pianists gave us a varied feast for the ear with the jazz and rock styles of Joe Fulton and Ted Walliker and the Wachs salon piece from George Pettifer especially impressive. Katherine Carr played Alwyn to end the evening but had also begun the evening on her harp with a dextrously delicate Tournier prelude. Among the eight string players credit goes to Sophie Howard for seeming equally at home on violin and viola. Deescha Chandrasma and Lizzy Patton gave poised performances on deep strings that were contrasted by the exceptionally compelling guitar playing of Ben Browning and Louis Jenkin. The rapt stillness of the latter’s Tarrega mesmerised the audience into concentrated listening.

The prize winners included Millie Mazzone (a double on the night with this third place) for a very14418_300 confident rendition of the virtuoso ‘Czardas’ by Monti (so famous, that it has been ‘sampled’ by Lady Gaga) with a wonderful husky tone and fine contrasts between the seven sections. Second was Soo Choi for a daintily charming Schubert sonata rondo, composed when he was nineteen. With respect to all the truly fine musicians in both competitions, I have to say that first prize winner Zoë Dixon’s ’cello playing in three movements from de Falla’s ‘Seven Popular Spanish Songs’ was exceptional in its mature musicality. We heard subtlety as well as panache and flair, and in the third section there was a hypnotic quality that held the audience breathless. This was the high point of an evening that was all peaks and no troughs, with seven of the 21 pieces benefiting from the professional accompaniments of Dr Marie Ward and Richard Saxel.

Peter Longshaw