RECITAL by PHYLLIS PALMER, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 1st March 1958

Tags: Review

(University Music School, Thursday, February 20).

The discomfort of Sisyphus is legendary, but at least his trouble with an uncongenial stone was in private. Miss Phyllis Palmer’s uphill battle with her own memory was inflicted upon the public.

Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor were rendered first. Here Miss Palmer was at home with the more delicate and gentle variations, but evidently at sea in those involving passage-work scales or a sense of dramatic urgency. Beethoven’s own playing is said to have been at times rough and inaccurate but it was imbued with an inspiring fire. Miss Palmer’s fire was out, but the roughness was there (doubtless in reverence for the composer), though I suspect that with more practice this also would have been absent.

After Beethoven’s variations upon a theme, we heard Palmer’s variations upon a sonata, Schubert’s Sonata in G Major. A horrifying exhibition.

Were Miss Palmer to revise the work for Publication, instructions to the printer might run thus:

“First Movement. Delete Schubert’s instruction cantabile. Change all pp to mf. Where phrase marks appear, as in bar 2, delete, and insert instruction non grazioso or perfunctory. Delete all subsidiary accents. Insert rallentando at suitable junctures with quasi improvisando (to give impression that performer is racking brains for what comes next, if anything). Remove downward scales and insert wavy line diagonally downwards, but different in upper stave from lower (to indicate that some sort of rushing descent is required, preferably not the same in both hands, with accidentals omitted to taste). Mark passage non glissando.

Second Movement. Omit ornaments and accents throughout first section. Delete pp wherever it occurs. Omit the 48 bars in the minor key. Insert one completely empty bar marked tentative improvization, preferably inharmonious and out of style. Repeat at this point two complete preceding sections foolishly not repeated by Schubert. Then skip to ending as per Schubert.

Menuetto. Alter left-hand chords to reduce number of different harmonies.

Final Movement. Mark senza allegrezza to denote that gaiety is to be avoided. Remove Schubert’s irritating variants so that the rondo-theme returns identical each time. Remove bar-lines during sections of passage-work, and mark senza misura, to ensure that rhythm is lost. Remove two or three bars at a time wherever the whim takes you. Sprinkle whole sonata liberally with misprints.”

During the interval after this sonata, I heard some members of the audience decide it was not a good work. They were not to know that Miss Palmer had with her travesty done a disservice not only to Schubert but to her listeners.

The second half of the recital was a great improvement. Miss Palmer played Bartok’s 14 Bagatelles from a copy. She was obviously far more in her element with this sort of music. There was nuance and clarity. Refinement and brusqueness were in nice proportion. Apart from No. 3 where the murmuring background was too bumpy, these Bagatelles were delightful. I am not sure that it is a good idea to play a complete set of anything all at once. Some people seem to enjoy hearing all the Bach 48 at a sitting, or all the Chopin Preludes, or all the Haydn Masses, which is rather like insisting on all the soups offered on a menu, or all the sweets. To me a Bagatelle is a solitary item leavening a programme of other things, the single drop of Cologne behind a woman’s ear, the one star at the top of a Christmas tree. To relish fourteen, savours of gluttony.

Two pieces of Debussy followed: La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes and La Puerta del Vino from the second book of Préludes. These were ravishing. Miss Palmer’s  delicate pianissimo was in her Debussy established beyond doubt, as it had not been in her Schubert. La Soirée dans Grenade was the second most impressive performance of the evening. Granados’ Quejas ó la Maya y el Ruisenor and Ravel’s Alborado del Gracioso concluded the recital. They were a poor choice coming after the Debussy, still Miss Palmer made them as telling as could be.

But the best piece of playing both in technical control and sensitive expression was displayed in the two encores awarded us, a Chopin Mazurka and a Scarlatti Sonata. I would have been content if Miss Palmer had offered nothing else in her programme but these, so perfectly were they performed. Miss Palmer can be a first-rate artist when she pleases.

Peter Tranchell.