Harriet Mackenzie and Philippa Mo, violins

St Mary's Church, Sunday September 27th 2015


Philippa and Harriet have been playing together since 2010 and have built an international reputation for technical and artistic excellence. They met at the Royal Academy of Music, London, and share a passion for contemporary music as well as for the wealth of older but rarely heard repertoire for two violins. We heard something of both in their concert in Iffley where the acoustics of St Mary's Church are notably responsive to higher registers of voice and instrument. The playing was breathtaking in its superb command of the range of mood and movement in a delightfully eclectic choice of music. The concert was enlightened by the crisp and humorous introductions that Philippa and Harriet gave before each piece.

The concert opened with Telemann's sonata for two violins, a charming taste of the Baroque, followed by Wieniawski's Etude caprice, a warm example of Polish Romanticism. Retorica then led us firmly into the present day with “Orange” by the South African Robert Fokkens. This was written for Retorica with a première at the 2D2N Contemporary Music Festival in Odessa. The name is an abstract label rather than carrying any significant message. Its tender and easily accessible inner sections are framed and punctuated by sequences of more startling strenuous bowing and guttural shouts. The audience, epecially its younger members, loved both the music and the obvious joy of Retorica in its performance.

Composers of duo music can figure dialogue and conflict in the interaction of the two instruments. Where the two instruments inhabit the same sound space they can also blend into a harmonic alloy rich in texture but, at least to a non-expert ear, blurring a dualistic structure. Such a contrast, bridging the concert interval, was most apparent between the Bach two-part inventions where the dialectic was not lost for a moment in Retorica's brilliant exposition, and the Mozart sonata K379 which projected a more orchestral sound image. It is perhaps relevant that K379, although transposed for two violins in Mozart's lifetime, was originally written for the contrasting voices of piano and violin.

Prokofiev's sonata for two violins Op 56 is a wonderful piece of work and it is easy to project what one knows of the composer's troubled life onto the sonata's contrasts of lyricism and vehemence. It was written, however, while Prokofiev was still enjoying the rarefied artistic ambience of the Paris of l'entre deux guerres and before his imprudent move to the brutal oppression of Stalin's Russia. The changing moods of the music reflect more Prokofiev's earlier persona as satirical innovator, and enfant terrible, rather than anything more worldly wise and bitter. But there is nothing trivial about this music and Retorica gave us a beautifully modulated and thoughtful performance.

The final piece in this brilliant concert was presented in the programme as “Handel arranged by Halvorsen” but more descriptively it could have been “Halvorsen's variations on a theme of Handel”. The well-known Passacaglia underwent many inventive and excitingly played transformations in its haul from the 18th into the early 20th century. A fine finish to a fine concert.

Jeremy Kelvin Smith