Nicola Benedetti plays Brahms Royal Festival Hall Philharmonia Conductor: Cristian Macelaru 1st October 2023

The concert opener – One Line, Two Shapes by Nico Muhly – stems from Pandemic isolation and must be a very challenging piece to bring off from cold because it starts with the softest possible chorale played by two celli and two double basses. It then builds gradually before being interrupted with staccato string chords – played with commendable dramatic incisiveness. I rather enjoyed the bowed xylophone and the acoustic effect of placing a small group of lower strings behind the brass.

Then it was off to the familiar, beloved sound world of Brahms’s violin concerto – except that Nicola Benedetti, tall and elegant in her long black dress, made it seem completely fresh. Visibly and physically feeling her way into the music during the opening orchestral section, she attacked the first movement (Allegro non troppo) with warmth, energy and passion interspersed with a lot of sweetness and imaginative, dynamic colour in the cadenza. The adagio felt like a real oasis after the heat of the allegro. The oboe solo (Timothy Rundle) was almost painfully beautiful and nicely supported by the rest of the woodwind section especially the bassoons. And from the solo violin entry there was a strong sense of conversation and rapport between Benedetti and the string section principals. Finally Macleru, clearly very much at home with Benedetti, made sure that the Allegro giocoso danced to the end of the concerto with joyful exuberance. Benedetti’s slender fingers, incidentally, are fascinating to watch as she trills effortlessly on all four fingers – surely the envy of every amateur string player in the hall?

After the interval came Rachmaninov’s third symphony with its many sections and mood changes across the unusual three movement structure. And the performance was full of things to admire – the legato string playing over the wind cross rhythms in the first movement and impeccable solo work from leader Zsolt-Tihamer Visontay for example. In a work which changes direction so often it’s important to find plenty of tension and Macelaru certainly did that especially in the adagio in which he stressed the detail from, for instance, harps and celeste before reaching the busier central section with its sudden, trumpet fanfares. It’s a big work (five percussionists plus timps) and here it purred along joyfully with players appearing to enjoy it as much as the rapturous audience did.

Susan Elkin

Daisy Noton (Flute) and Milo Harper (Harp) Christchurch St Leonards on Sea 24th September 2023

Music by Faure, CPE Bach, Telemann, Debussy, Elgar, Bizet, Boulanger, Tournier, Piazzola, Ibert

The flute and the harp have, in the past, had their critics. Mozart apparently had an aversion to the flute, writing to his father in 1778: ” You know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear ” while one book on music described a harp recital as the ‘nadir of ineptitude’. More recently, popular figures such as James Galway and Marisa Robles have raised the profile of both instruments, encouraging the sort of enthusiasm generated among young cellists of my generation by Jacqueline du Pre. Moreover composers – even Mozart – have produced for the two instruments together music of sublime beauty, profound emotion and intimate charm: 19th and 20th century French composers have found the combination particularly alluring – works by Ravel (especially the ravishing Introduction and Allegro) and Poulenc come to mind.

The first of the eighth season of concerts organised under the auspices of the Hastings Philharmonic Orchestra served to dispel utterly any apprehensions about the way in which both flute and harp can encompass an extraordinary, even unexpected, variety of expression, either as solo instruments or when playing together, and the two young performers clearly have distinguished careers ahead of them. Flautist Daisy Noton, a former woodwind finalist in the BBC Young Musician Competition, is still studying at the Royal Academy, while harpist Milo Harper, also a product of the Academy, has already won a number of prizes and has had extensive professional experience: he is keen to broaden the harp repertoire. Both developed their skills in national and international youth orchestras, those essential cradles for the nurturing of musical talent.

Through a varied programme of relatively short pieces including solos for each instrument and works for both, Daisy and Milo were able to demonstrate both their own exquisite musicianship and the full range of what their respective instruments can achieve. Arrangements of some well-known music also gave one new insights, like a seeing a close friend in an unfamiliar context, particularly true of the Elgar Salut d’amour. Even though they had apparently only met for the first time a few days before the concert, Daisy and Milo played with great sensitivity to each other and had a real rapport, producing a wonderful balance, each letting the other shine when required while providing sympathetic support.

Daisy consistently produced a warm, firm tone with little vibrato to distract from its purity and some beautiful legato playing. In faster passages her articulation was precise with subtle phrasing, lightness and agility: at no point was musicality sacrificed to bravura performance, and if anything, she played with understatement. She took on board the demands of the solo Telemann G minor Fantasia in which she brilliantly brought out both the melodic content and implied harmony through clever differentiation in tone, while her performance of the Debussy Syrnix was movingly plaintiff and evocative. Indeed, in almost all pieces, her playing produced an underlying poignancy while interspersed with bouts of dramatic energy.

Milo showed everything of which the harp is capable in his solos, particularly the Tournier Danse de Moujik, designed to showcase what is distinctive about the harp through marvellously different textures and varieties of tone, from lush glissandi to isolated, echoing harmonics. He has an extraordinary ability to bring out a melody while providing a full accompaniment, and his performance of the Debussy Clair de Lune made one think the work had been written for the harp. Technically , his mastery of the harp is superb and he manages to produce a variety of expression from the instrument which I would have considered impossible

The works performed together were positively inspirational, with both drama and intimacy and, in many cases, a sense of wistfulness which the combination perhaps naturally generates. In the CPE Bach Sonata in G minor, both played with great precision, exchanging dominant roles and answering motifs, and producing a perfect ensemble. In all pieces, there was just the right level of rubato and each player recognised when the other had to come to the fore. In Nadia Boulanger’s Nocturne, I really sensed two performers playing as one, such was their sensitivity to each other, a deeply moving experience overall in a piece which gets to the essence of each instrument: the gradations in volume were simply thrilling. This sense of unity was also reflected in the Piazzola Café 30 and the Ibert Entr’acte, where some delicate and skilful playing from both performers matched each other, reflecting the somewhat melancholy nature of each work.

This was quite simply a wonderfully uplifting evening, in which two young performers showed their ability to play with enormous sensitivity and skill in a varied and demanding programme of considerable emotional content. I feel sure we will hear much of both Daisy and Milo as time goes on and they are to be congratulated on their fine performances.

Jonathan Watts