Review: Cambridge Szeged Society Concert

JOE CONWAY: A ‘dramatic and vital tribute to a composer who was in danger of becoming just a name in text books about 20th century classical music’.

Fitzwilliam College Chapel Janet Simpson John Turner Lesley-Jane Rogers Matyas Seiber

Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano), John Turner (recorders), Janet Simpson (piano and harpsichord)

14th April 7pm at Fitzwilliam College Chapel. £12/£8

The Cambridge Szeged twinning society was really fortunate in securing the services of two musicians as exciting as Lesley-Jane Rogers and John Turner for its concert celebrating the music of Matyas Seiber. Together with Janet Simpson they presented a dramatic and vital tribute to a composer who was in danger of becoming just a name in text books about 20th century classical music.

In performances that made his scores come alive, Jane and John successfully made the case for a new appraisal and – I would suggest – a new appreciation of the work of this Anglo-Hungarian musician. But as well as three substantial works by Seiber, they also performed a selection of songs and recorder pieces by some of his contemporaries, associates and pupils.

Particularly pleasing about the pairing of these star performers was how well they contrasted with and complemented each other. In Alan Gibbs' songcycle Fire of Pale Desire for instance, Lesley-Jane Rogers put everything into her singing, effectively deploying a majestic and powerful voice that could easily have filled a space ten times the size of the Fitz Chapel. At the same time John Turner's modest and unobtrusive treble recorder playing stayed sensibly in the background.

However in a suite for descant recorder and harpsichord called Transcipties by Geza Frid (No, that's not a misprint!), John's playing effortlessly came to the fore. The fifth movement, dubbed Interlude, was played with breathtaking velocity and virtuosity while the finale, called Little Hungarian Rhapsody, charmed the audience with its tongue-in-cheek musical quotations.

Having said that, the first movement of the suite turned out to be a keyboard solo. Called Chorale it was richly realised by Janet Simpson on a beautiful Goble harpsichord and was actually one of the most attractive of the many short pieces on the programme.

As soon as Jane and Janet began Seiber's songcycle To Poetry however, it was clear that we'd moved on to a different level. What do you look out for in pretty well any piece of music you've not heard before? I would suggest two over-riding characteristics – genuine emotion backed up by technical proficiency. The five songs had these qualities in abundance.

Written in a surprisingly traditional and accessible musical language they gave Lesley-Jane Rogers the opportunity to display her phenomenal vocal skills. She has absolute control of every aspect of a voice which can be sweet or strident, gentle or passionate. Above all, she has the ability to characterise each song perfectly, using not just her voice but her whole body to convey its meaning. I'd been bowled over by the pathos of Weep You No More, but the following blood-curdling setting of Timor Mortis had me transfixed – with its declamations, whispers, and fragments of the ancient tune Dies Irae.

There were two more works by Seiber after the interval and after a welcome glass of Hungarian red. (Well, music criticism can be thirsty work, you know . . .) Pastorale was a mellow piece for treble recorder and piano built on three contrasted tunes and played with lyricism and grace by John Turner. And Four Greek Folksongs gave Jane the opportunity to wow the audience still more in performances that were full of exotic charm.

As well as Alan Gibbs, two other former pupils of Matyas Seiber were present at this concert to hear performances of their work. Some of Hugh Wood's music can be a bit recondite but it's good to report that Dream Song for soprano and sopranino recorder posed no problems and painted a swift picture of pastoral delights. Karel Janovicky's attractive Rain Songs, to poems by George Szirtes, were similarly easy-on-the-ear but gripping and thoughtful too, and offered another showcase for all three performers.

This world premiere ended a concert notable for its informality and friendliness. Much of this was down to the presence of Matyas Seiber's daughter Julia who organised and presented the event-packed programme.