Laura van der Heijden (Cello) and Max Baillie (Violin). 

Reviewed by Patrick Glass

It’s difficult to do justice to this astonishing concert. The many messages the artists have since received makes this clear. The audience were treated to an evening of startling brilliance, surprise, and enlightenment. All may (no, should!) have felt privileged to be there. It was wonderful just to be in the Holy Child Church – St Michael’s Chapel of the first Holy Child Jesus (HCJ) Convent – for the church has been closed for many years. But thanks to Simon Wentworth and English Heritage, with its tall interior restored to its former glory, it will now become a regular Public Arts Event Centre. 

During the concert, two glowing rings of dappled sunlight above the reredos, the ornamental screen covering the wall behind the alter, added to the concert’s unique atmosphere. There at the beginning of the concert, slowly diminishing, and just disappearing at the very end. 

It seemed the violin and cello are fighting for dominance while at other times are in gentle conversation

And the church has an amazing acoustic which showcased the wonderfully broad programme of Baroque mixed with the cultures of Eastern Europe and a song arranged especially for the occasion provided by Laura van der Heijden (Cello) and Max Baillie (Violin). Laura, BBC Young Musician of the Year 2012 – when only just fifteen – paired with violin virtuoso Max to bring duets by Bach, Bartok, Kodaly, and Handel. Three pieces, and a song for the encore.

Max and Laura have great rapport and were clearly delighted to be there. And this was immediately communicated to the audience. The breadth and subtlety of their playing was amazing to experience – in strings, bow, and voice. They enjoy difficult challenges and live to perform and share their exceptional gifts.

The first piece was a medley they’d put together opening with improvisation and weaving between Bach – from the Anna Magdalena songbook – and two-part keyboard inventions and Bartok from the two-violin duets. Max and Laura showed great versatility in this – their own original piece.

Second was Handel’s Violin Concerto in A Major. It’s sunny and redemptive, virtuosic and playful in four short movements. The striking virtuosi are revealed early. Max standing and Laura sitting in response. A violin speaking with a cello. Here, Laura and Max evidently enjoyed their vibrant reciprocal playing.

The third piece was Zoltan Kodahy: “high drama” as Max warned. And they weren’t to play the seminal and relatively well-known Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello. No, they played the Duo for Violin and Cello Op. 7 which Max explained was epic, rhapsodic, and about freedom. And very rich: with folksong and the influence of Debussy, the French Impressionists, and Italian Renaissance choirs.

Max explained that while it contains a beautiful folk tune, the Sonata was also melancholic, difficult, modern, atonal, and ‘squeaky’ – though it became musical again in the end. How true. Parts were of extreme difficulty – for both performers and audience – as well versatility. To me, it seemed the violin and cello are fighting for dominance while at other times are in gentle conversation – both finger plucking their strings in reciprocal harmony. Then the long pauses – where next…? lt’s full of surprises. What’s splendid about Kodahy’s Duo – while it’s extremely challenging and dramatic – is its fine resolution. Here again, Laura and Max gave us a bravura performance.

The encore was the biggest surprise of all. Laura sang the traditional song Alfonsina y el mar in a beautifully arresting voice. Wholly remarkable: effortless, natural – and clear as a bell. I’ve since watched many others sing Alfonsina y el mar on You Tube but found no one to compare with Laura’s sublime performance. 

It was lovely to be able to share a drink before and after the concert. The setting is perfect: on the lawn and under the trees of the Close. Congratulations and many thanks to everyone concerned with putting on the concert.

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