On Wednesday 23rd September 2020, Brentwood Cathedral Music supporters and music lovers heard a wonderful lunchtime recital of English twentieth century piano duets, performed by husband and wife duo, Joanna Smith and Roderick Elms, who enjoy a close relationship with Brentwood Cathedral, and they have both been involved in numerous recordings at the Cathedral. Amongst these, Joanna accompanied tenor Richard Dowling, in Andrew Wright’s song cycle and CD, ‘Bliss of Solitude’ in 2009. They have enjoyed busy professional lives for many years, sharing platforms and recordings with numerous musicians, including BBC orchestral and Radio events. Their biographies can be read in full on the Brentwood Cathedral Music website. Please also search ‘Just a Little from the Top’, by Roderick Elms, which chronicles his musical career of over forty years and is promoted with great enthusiasm by friend and singer, Aled Jones.
In June 2018, Roderick and Joanna’s concert venue was Brentwood Cathedral, but this afternoon we were invited to join them for a live-streamed performance from their home in Essex. Prior to the recital, we opened our screens to the bright and familiar sight of Brentwood Cathedral, with images of CD covers, many of which have been recorded and produced by Roderick Elms. This was accompanied by rousing and inspiring singing from the Cathedral Choir in the hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest’, with the beautiful descant by Master of Music, Andrew Wright. This uplifting introduction continued with Nina How, who organises all the concerts, and spoke to us outside the Song School with the programme’s details, which was very moving. We have all missed attending the regular Wednesday recitals, so we felt warmly welcomed to today’s concert!
Joanna and Roderick began their recital with ‘Scherzo Burlesco’, by English composer, arranger and musicologist Philip Lane (b.1950), which was humorous, playful and an ideal opening piece! Afterwards, the pianists told us that they would soon be premiering a piece especially written for them by the composer.
It was really enlightening and a pleasure to hear their musical comments throughout, especially for the second piece, ‘A Gentle Dance’, by Jeffery Wilson, who composed this duet for Joanna and Roderick as a wedding gift. Wilson is an Essex composer with a national and increasing international reputation in classical, contemporary and jazz, as well as an educator. He is also a performer with the popular ensemble, ‘Saxology’. ‘A Gentle Dance’, with its mesmerising melody and sensitive duet playing, engaged the listener with a happy memory of the waltz of 2007!
Their next duet was ‘Suite for Piano – Duet No.2 (Opus 71)’, from three pieces for piano duo, by early Romantic London composer, pianist and conductor York Bowen (1884-1961). It was published in 1923 and not surprisingly continues to enthral pianists. Introducing the piece, Joanna described it as “frequently challenging, but always wonderfully crafted”. We first heard the lively ‘Allegro’, filmed occasionally from above to appreciate their ‘four-hands’ playing. The second movement, a ‘Bacarolle’, started gently before reaching a crescendo, eventually returning to the opening theme. The final movement, ‘Moto perpetuo’, with its continuous fast-flowing fingerings and harmonic complexities, was a thrilling conclusion to this piece.
Finally, Joanna and Roderick played ‘Four by Four’, an arrangement by Roderick Elms of four well known songs: ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’, ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ and ‘With a Song in my Heart’. These famous songs have been exquisitely arranged and celebrated by Roderick Elms for piano duet, revitalising the melodies through elaborate writing and clever links between the songs! This was exactly what we needed to hear during this challenging year, with the hope and conviction that we will all soon be able to “gather lilacs in the spring again, and walk together down an English lane”.
On behalf of Andrew Wright, Nina How, our virtual audience and everyone at Brentwood Cathedral Music, we thank Joanna Smith and Roderick Elms so much for their superb recital today and for so kindly welcoming us to their home. Through their generous sharing of beautiful music they have reached countless listeners and music lovers! We wish Joanna and Roderick continued success and good health for their family, and we look forward to hearing and seeing them again in the near future.