Rochdale Music Society season starts with The Willshire Piano Duo

Date published: 06 November 2017

The Rochdale Music Society’s 2017-18 season started with the Willshire Piano Duo - James Willshire and his wife, Philippa, both soloists of distinction in their own right.

Sitting together at one piano on the stage at Heywood Civic Centre they brought musical delights to an appreciative audience with a programme of music by Schubert, Debussy, Ronald Stevenson, Saint-Saëns, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

The concert began with Schubert’s Four Polonaises D599. These are not as complex or emotionally demanding as the better-known Chopin’s solo works in this genre, but they give what is, perhaps, a more realistic picture of this fashionable, courtly Polish dance with its characteristic rhythm. James and Philippa obviously enjoy playing these, engaging elegantly as they did on their keyboard dance floor.

By way of contrast to such stylised music, the Six Epigraphes Antiques by Debussy which followed call for considerable flexibility, delicacy and detailed control of the musical process. It is by no means for two people to sit side by side at the same piano keyboard and respond as one to the variety of technical demands this kind of music makes as it weaves its way through contrasting melodic and harmonic textures.

Such is the musical partnership of James and Philippa that they managed to achieve a near perfect balance of presentation that brought Debussy’s musical images vividly to life for an enthralled audience.

Next, the duo played two Folk Song arrangements by Ronald Stevenson. Stevenson, who died in 2015, was a prolific composer whose music is not given the prominence it deserves in concert programmes. From the impact these examples made on the audience, it would seem that all would have linked to hear more of the many arrangements of Folk Songs he made from various parts of the world. The Song for New Year’s Day and The Song of the Cray Fisher are from China, and the oriental flavour of their melody and harmony is sensitively treated to charm the western ear.

To end the first half of the concert James and Philippa introduced a sequence of three movements from the Carnival of the Animals suite by Saint-Saëns which were not ‘on the programme’ but had been requested by a very young member of the audience who is just beginning to learn to play the piano. The movements were Fossils, The Elephant and Aquarium. What a gesture! What a treat!

The second half of the concert was devoted to a single work, Scheherzade, by Rimsky-Korsakov. This, perhaps the most well-known and best loved of his works, is usually to be heard in its original, very colourful orchestral guise. When played in the composer’s arrangement for piano duo it inevitably lacks a great deal of the variety of texture and sound available to the orchestrator. This can lead to some of the more repetitive passages seeming a bit longer than necessary, because of the monochrome nature of a single instrument.

The performance on this occasion was more than equal to the challenging technical and interpretive demands made on the pianists, who made sure from the very first bars that every member of the audience was carried away by Sinbad and his crew to a land where princes battle for honour or make sweet love to princesses, and where the stony heart of a savage sultan can be softened and moved by the fantastic stories one of his wives tells him. Such a performance is proof that the piano can, in the right hands, be made to sound like a full orchestra! Hands like those of The Willshire Duo.

The Rochdale Music Society’s programme of concerts

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