EIF: Malcolm Martineau & Friends

Old College Quad

With consummate timing, pianist Malcolm Martineau assembled his pals – singers Elizabeth Watts and Roderick Williams, violinist Sijie Chen and cellist Ursula Smith – to mark Sir Walter Scott’s 250th on the eve of the great writer’s actual birthday. More immediate matters of synchronisation then presented further challenges.

This was a Queen’s Hall concert par excellence, regrettably not at the Queen’s Hall, but in the Festival’s temporary “polytunnel” in the courtyard of the oldest part of the University of Edinburgh half a mile down the road. Needs must, and an impressive response to pandemic restrictions, but the habitual broad smile of baritone Williams disguised the fact that his accompanist was clearly struggling to hear the voices, at least at the start of the recital. For someone as sensitive and attuned to nuances of vocal delivery as Martineau this must have been excruciatingly frustrating.

From an audience point of view, however, the uncertainty of tempo at the start of the programme was swiftly overcome, and easily ignored. There was so much of fascination in this programme, alongside gloriously familiar music given an unforgettable performance.

That piece was Schubert’s Ave Maria, surely as well-ridden an old war-horse as there is in the repertoire, and one where the piano accompaniment is as firmly lodged in the mind as the melody. No matter what set up of microphones and monitors Watts and Martineau were having to cope with, their rendition of the song was superb, the soprano in heart-stoppingly glorious form and the pianist immaculately responsive to her phrasing.

It is an ill-divided world, and Watts had the best of this inventive programme, with Williams’ solos almost punctuation between her finest moments, an impression not contradicted by the fact that he, unlike her, was using a score. In the Schubert settings from The Lady of the Lake, the character of Ellen has the best songs, and Watts had already let us hear Mendelssohn’s less grand setting of the prayer to the Virgin.

Of the less well-known songs, it was the baritone who was called upon to demonstrate facility in a range of languages in songs by Glinka and Meyerbeer, the latter’s La pauvre Louise neatly juxtaposed with Watts singing Parry’s Proud Maisie.

There are no intervals during this year’s concerts, but the pair ended what would have been each half of a Queen’s Hall recital with a duet, and the strings took part in the opening Haydn and closing Beethoven sequence. The Monks of Bangor’s March is probably the meatiest of Beethoven’s Scott settings, which few would argue are essential elements of his canon.

Williams had the last word, however, with what he described as a “musical bon-bon” that he had composed as an encore by the whole ensemble. Like a rediscovered parlour song, it captured, precisely, the ambivalence of the contemporary reader – and student – to Sir Walter’s works. Reverence is always better for being tempered, even on a 250th birthday.

Keith Bruce

Image: Malcolm Martineau credit Ryan Buchanan