2 May 2013: Carducci String Quartet, Roderick Williams, Tom Poster

Haydn, Barber, Ian Venables, Elgar

Ian Venables has always been a courageous composer, unafraid to bare his soul in music which speaks so communicatively to the listener.
But his latest composition takes that courage one step further, delving into an Elgarian memory-bank in a manner which is never parasitical but totally convincing. And appropriate, too, given that this Song of the Severn was premiered to a full-house audience at Malvern Concert Club, who commissioned the work with the help of funding from the Kay Trust; Elgar is everywhere in the air in Malvern, composing many of his masterpieces here and in the vicinity, and co-founding the Club 110 years ago.

The Song of the Severn is a celebration of that great river just as much as A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad celebrates that wonderful county through which the river meanders its way. Venables sets poems by John Masefield (two of them), Housman himself, John Drinkwater and Philip Worner, mostly sombre in tone, but leavened by the folkiness of the second Masefield setting “Laugh, and be merry”, a poem worthy of Thomas Hardy in its gritted-teeth gaiety.

This is a work which flows so naturally (Severn-imagery comes even into this review) as the texts unfold, the baritone soloist (Roderick Williams here could never be bettered), string quartet (the amazingly empathetic Carducci) and piano (the ever-attentive subtle colourings of Tom Poster) delivering these songs with great depths of understanding and commitmen
Elgar hovers right from the start. Anyone who knows his Caractacus will have sensed this immediately from the subject (Brits versus Romans) of the opening setting, Masefield’s “On Malvern Hill”, but there are subsequent references to that composer’s Sea Pictures (which Venables tells me crept into the score subliminally), and one of which Venables confessed himself unaware: the rocking sound of the ship’s engines in the 13th Enigma variation.

And the final song, Worner’s “The River in December”, brings another composer to mind. This is a farewell reflection, sad, wise, quietly lamenting. Its mesmeric repetition of the concluding words “remember me”, pentatonically set, haunt the memory — as does the “ewig” of Mahler’s similarly valedictory Das Lied von der Erde.
Williams and the Carducci had warmed up with a thoughtful, considered account of Barber’s Dover Beach. Haydn’s Emperor Quartet combined both jauntiness and elegance, and Tom Poster collaborated almost concerto-like at times with the Carducci in Elgar’s enigmatic, rueful Piano Quintet.

© Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post

reproduced by kind permission.

Impressive Venables Première Marks 110 Years of Music in Malvern

During his years as a resident of Malvern, Worcestershire, Edward Elgar founded the Malvern Concert Club. That was in 1903. This concert, the final one in the Club’s 110thseason, celebrated that anniversary in some style and it was apparent from the sizeable audience that the Club is in robust health. The concert included the première of a new song cycle by Ian Venables, a resident of Worcestershire since 1986, which had been commissioned by the Malvern Concert Club with the support of the Kay Trust.

The mainstays of the concert were the Carducci Quartet who took part in all four works. Though they are based in Gloucestershire, where I live, I had not previously heard them though very good reports of them had reached me from friends and their recording of music by Graham Whettam was warmly received by MusicWeb International. They made a very positive impression from the start, opening with Haydn’s ‘Emperor’ Quartet. I certainly don’t mean to appear to belittle Haydn but this quartet was an ideal aperitif for a programme of essentially Romantic music from the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. The Carduccis offered tight, crisp and stylish playing in Haydn’s delightfully sprightly first movement. The second movement is a theme and four variations on Haydn’s ‘Emperor’s Hymn’, which eventually became the German national anthem. Here I particularly enjoyed the warm tone brought to the melody by cellist Emma Denton in the second variation and also the fine ensemble work, especially in the quieter moments, during the fourth variation. The finale was full of energy and I admired the way the quartet achieved this energy without ever driving the music excessively.

Roderick Williams joined the Carduccis for Samuel Barber’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach. Barber was no mean singer himself – a baritone – and it was he who sang on the first recording of the work in 1937. As part of my ‘homework’ for this concert I had listened to Barber’s own recording a few hours earlier. It’s an important document – Barber himself self-deprecatingly described the recording as ‘good enough’, I believe, though it’s much better than that – but Barber’s own delivery of his vocal line, good though it was, couldn’t match the expressiveness of the singing we heard from Roderick Williams. I deliberately did not follow the words during the performance and, frankly, there was little need for, as usual, Williams’ diction was impeccable. He always demonstrates a great care for words and this performance was no exception. As usual with this singer there was relaxed eloquence in everything he sang; for most of the time he seems to make scarcely any physical effort yet the round, even tone is produced seamlessly throughout the compass of his voice and there’s ample power when this is required. His range of tone and colour brought Barber’s music to life as, for example, with the lovely shading at the words ‘and bring the eternal note of sadness in.’ By contrast, ‘Ah, love, let us be truthful’ was a heartfelt exclamation and Williams and his colleagues achieved an intense climax at ‘neither joy, nor love, nor light.’ I thought it was telling that Roderick Williams chose to stand in the centre of the ensemble between the second violinist and the violist; there was no question of this being a vocal solo with quartet accompaniment, rather it was a collegiate performance, as it should be, and it was very fine.

Ian Venables has written over 50 songs, including seven song cycles, and over the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to hear about half of them, both in concert and on disc. I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve heard to date and I’ve come to identify a number of common threads. One is that this is a composer for whom melody and harmony – the latter often intriguing and/or challenging – is at the heart of everything he writes. Another is that he has a discerning taste in texts to set. He also seems to have a natural affinity for the human voice, writing for it with great understanding and most effectively. Furthermore, his songs fit naturally and effortlessly right into the English art song tradition of which Finzi and Gurney are such prime exemplars. By the time the first performance of The Song of the Severn had finished it was clear that this new cycle further evidenced all those traits.

In an extensive programme note the composer related that in responding to this commission he had decided at the outset that the River Severn, which flows through Worcestershire, should tell the story of the county. He thus sought out poems by poets either born in Worcestershire or inspired by its landscape. The cycle opens with a setting of John Masefield’s ‘On Malvern Hill’. I thought this was a very fine song indeed, not least in the central section where the poem speaks of the time when the Roman legions were quartered on the Malvern Hills. The music here was powerful and dramatic. Venables’ accompaniment was suitably weighty here but the five instrumentalists – pianist Tom Poster had by now joined the Carduccis – balanced their lines expertly so as to blend together well and to avoid drowning the singer. Actually, I doubt they could have drowned Williams’ voice for he projected it strongly, as the music demanded, yet without ever sacrificing the line or forcing his tone.

After a deceptively simple opening A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright was given an increasingly intense setting by Venables, underpinned at times by low tolling piano notes. It was striking, however, that no matter how intense the music was a pronounced melodic vein ran right through the music. I was struck, for example, by the melancholic music at the words ‘Days lost, I know not how’. Elgar’s Music sets the first part of a sonnet by John Drinkwater, written in 1935, the year after Elgar’s death. It’s a gentle piece and I loved the soft, delicate opening with spare but effective accompaniment to long, lyrical vocal phrases. Venables writes that he found he had included, sub-consciously, a reference to Sea Slumber Song from Elgar’s Sea Pictures– I think it was in the second violin and viola parts at the start but I may be wrong. Excellent contrast is provided by another Masefield setting, Laugh, and be merry. This jolly song is essentially but not consistently forthright and earthy. Venables cleverly avoids the obvious by writing in 7/4 time and this irregular metre adds spice to the rhythms. This lively but subtly varied setting drew a collective chuckle from the audience at the end. The cycle ends with Philip Worner’s The River in December. This eloquent song includes much intense, deeply felt music. It’s a very expressive song and it received a stirring, powerful performance.

The cycle and the performers were accorded an extremely enthusiastic reception by the audience and I’m not surprised. This is fine music that communicates most effectively with the listener. As with all effective song settings Ian Venables has carefully chosen his texts and has then enhanced them and made them speak in a new way through the addition of his music. The composer was present and can only have been thrilled by the quality of the performance his new work received. The instrumental parts were superbly delivered and in Roderick Williams the songs found an outstanding interpreter. I’m impatient to hear The Song of the Severn again and I hope that before too long it will be added to the expanding discography of Ian Venables’ music. If and when a recording is made the songs could have no better advocates than tonight’s performers.

Fittingly, the last word in this celebratory concert went to the Malvern Concert Club’s founder. I don’t know why we don’t hear Elgar’s Piano Quintet more often for it’s a fine work, as are those other two chamber works that he wrote around the same time, his Violin Sonata and String Quartet. Maybe the trouble lies with the first movement which never seems to settle. For much of the time it’s a movement of half-lights and shadows and just when you think a train of thought has become established in Elgar’s mind – as, for instance, in the driving, powerful central episode – he changes tack, often for another introspective spell. It is certainly nothing like the Elgar of old.

With the Adagio we are, perhaps, in more familiar Elgar territory. This is a magnificent, moving piece in which Elgar mines a deep vein of melancholy and nostalgia. It’s hard to resist the feeling that in these pages he was recalling and reflecting on a world – and friends? – now gone for ever; not for nothing are the parts for the viola and cello, with their rich autumnal tones, so important in this movement. This is the emotional core of the work and Tom Poster and the Carduccis treated it as such. The music was played marvellously, with all five musicians displaying a wonderful empathy both with the music and with each other; this was true chamber music. There was passionate commitment from all of them at the movement’s heartfelt climax but just as impressive was the sensitivity in the quieter, more inward passages. This was memorable and very special music making. The finale contains much surging, passionate music and, on the surface it seems like the Elgar of old – or it would do, had we not heard the preceding movements. Along the way Elgar pauses more than once for more intimate, reflective passages before resuming the more outgoing material. The musicians were alive to these twists and turns and caught the spirit of Elgar’s music most successfully before bringing the Quintet – and the concert – to an ardent end.

This was a memorable evening. Six marvellous musicians gave fine, dedicated performances and we heard some splendid music. I think Elgar would have rejoiced to find the Concert Club that he founded celebrating its first 110 years in such fine style.

John Quinn MusicWeb International Seen and Heard

reproduced with kind permission. (John Rushby-Smith was away.)

7 March 2013 Doric String Quartet: Haydn, Korngold, Schubert

Schubert’s late works were all composed in the shadow of his awareness of mortal illness. If Paul Lewis’s splendid all-Schubert piano recital a few weeks ago brought out the meditative aspect of the composer’s contemplation of death, the Doric String Quartet’s performance of the D minor Death and the Maiden quartet revealed the angry side of this confrontation. The playing was hard-driven, punchy, defiant. It was also brilliantly adept. The opening declamation tingled the spine, while the maiden in the slow-movement challenged rather than implored the Grim Reaper to spare her. The scherzo was threatening in its rhythmic persistence and the finale whirled its death dance at breakneck speed and with terrifying precision. If I have a reservation it concerns the Doric Quartet’s decision to end the first movement exposition with a ritardando and a momentary pause before they began the development section. This broke up the momentum, and was a tendency I had noticed once or twice during the Haydn Quartet Op.20, No.5 which opened the programme, particularly in the Minuet movement. It was a bit like a comedian explaining a joke in case the audience wouldn’t get it otherwise.

For all of which, the Haydn sparkled with ingenuity, and ingenuity also marked the central work, Korngold’s Third Quartet. After a notable early career as a ‘serious’ composer, whose works included the successful opera Die Tote Stadt, Erich Korngold was forced to flee Nazi persecution and settled in America in 1938. He quickly established himself as a composer of Hollywood film scores – even winning an Oscar – and this is how most people came to regard him. Towards the end of the war he became disenchanted with the film industry and returned to writing concert music, his third quartet being the first manifestation of this move. It is a multi-layered, eclectic work in which the composer never seems to decide which style he should embrace and which material he should use. Where Haydn and Schubert extract the most from a few simple ideas, Korngold showers us with one idea after another. One moment he is astringently atonal, the next he sprinkles his complex score with liberal doses of Hollywood saccharine. Does it work? Sometimes. Does it entertain? Certainly. Was it brilliantly played? Most definitely. And how!

© John Rushby-Smith

24 January 2013 Paul Lewis: Schubert

The composer Franz Schubert died at the tragically early age of 31 from a disease which today could have been easily cured. At his death he had already written many masterpieces and it is tempting to speculate on what else he might have composed had he survived. What he probably wouldn’t have given us, though, were the three great piano sonatas – his last – that made up Paul Lewis’s recital for the Malvern Concert Club. Writing these towering works in the shadow of the death of his idol Beethoven, and now in the knowledge that he himself was mortally ill, Schubert gave the conventional structures of the mainstream classico-romantic piano sonata an intensely personal slant, both formally and emotionally. One particular aspect that sets them apart is their improvisatory character and this is the attribute Paul Lewis captured particularly well. So focussed was his playing that one almost felt he could have been Schubert himself sitting at the keyboard at an intimate Schubertiade – a soirée of friends, albeit in this case six-hundred strong – as he expressed his thoughts through the myriad twists and turns that could be wrested from his material. Where some pianists might have harangued their audiences with displays of pianistic rhetoric, Paul Lewis’s playing was meditative, drawing us into Schubert’s world and revealing its nuances. Sometimes he would tip us a wry wink, perhaps by startling us with a declamatory outburst, a sudden silence or an unexpected harmonic shift; at other times he would tug at our emotions with a line of sublime melody or a flurry of dextrous arabesques. His pianissimos were exquisite and demanding of rapt attention, while the power of his fortissimos and the impact of his sforzandi were always in keeping with the dramatic context. Throughout the recital Lewis served his master with elegant phrasing and a use of rubato that was always subtle and never interrupted the music’s essential pulse. This was focused music making of the highest class, made all the more telling by the enhancement to understanding provided by Joseph Brand’s exemplary programme notes. Outside the Forum Theatre there was snow on the ground and the wind was arctic, yet inside the audience was so engrossed that nary a cough was to be heard. And that probably says it all.

© John Rushby-Smith

22 November 2012 The Fibonacci Ensemble: Mozart, Barber, Koechlin, Poulenc

Those who were deterred by storm and tempest from attending the Malvern Concert Club concert on November 22nd missed a memorable treat. In a refreshingly bold programme the virtuoso chamber ensemble that plays under the somewhat obtuse name of The Fibonacci Sequence offered truly delectable fare for the two-thirds house of braver souls who made it to the Forum. The concert began with Mozart’s masterpiece, the exquisite Quintet for Piano and Wind Instruments, K452. This relatively late work reveals the composer’s skilful ability to blend disparate timbres into cohesive sonority without compromising the instruments’ individual character, and it was never better demonstrated than by the five players who presented it here. The performance was beautifully balanced throughout. Tempi and textures were finely judged, intonation (never a given with such forces) was nigh on perfect.

The mood then changed both musically and meteorologically as we were transported to Samuel Barber’s Summer Music for Wind Quintet. A comfortable work that is as quintessentially American as it is quintessentially Samuel Barber, it warmed us up with beautifully articulated evocations of balmy indolence and sun-drenched conviviality.

Less appealing perhaps was Koechlin’s drily academic Trio for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon. Although tapping into its period’s fashion for neo-baroque pastiche, it displayed neither the poise of the genuine baroque nor the crafty wit of the pasticheur. The third and longest movement was an extended fugue that evoked in me dusty memories of harmony and counterpoint classes. Clever? Maybe. Attractive? Not really. Well played? Certainly.

What followed, however, was true joy. Introduced by the composer’s Nocturne for Piano Solo, played with great sensitivity by Kathron Sturrock, Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments is a glorious compendium of parody and pathos, full of subtle cross references to well-known works by other composers, including the Mozart Quintet, yet remaining unmistakably the work of its unique master-craftsman. Where Mozart’s work was all about blend, Poulenc’s exploits the instruments’ idiosyncracies as it unfolds in a series of kaleidoscopic episodes, each more colourful than the last. The performance sparkled with that special kind of wit and wisdom that comes from mature musicianship; something the members of the Fibonacci Sequence have in spades. This was playing to die for.

© John Rushby-Smith

25 October 2012 Nash Ensemble: Ravel, Mozart, Bax, Reade, Piazzolla, Debussy

The Nash Ensemble ranks among Europe’s top chamber groups, so any concert given by three of its members pretty well guarantees top-notch music-making. Such was certainly the case at the Malvern Concert Club last Thursday, when Philippa Davies (flute), Philip Dukes (viola) and Lucy Wakeford (harp) presented an eclectic programme built around two major works written specifically for that combination by Arnold Bax and Claude Debussy.

They began the evening with an arrangement of Ravel’s familiar Sonatine for piano by the Nash’s former harpist Skaila Kanga. Some might feel that had the composer intended to write for this combination he would have done so differently, since few composers understood the nuances of instrumental colour better than Maurice Ravel, and Sonatine is so perfectly written for piano that no transcription can really measure up. However, the performance was so brilliantly played that all could be forgiven.

Happier was the arrangement for flute and viola of Mozart’s Duo in B flat, K424. In his stylish programme notes Joseph Brand describes Mozart’s wry satisfaction upon learning that the work he ghosted for a sick Michael Haydn had been received with delight by Wolfgang’s arch-nemesis, the Bishop of Salzburg, and although the original violin part lies uncomfortably for the flute, such hurdles were ably overcome so that we too could discover and delight in the surprising depths of a work intended as light entertainment.

Arnold Bax’s poignantly beautiful Elegiac Trio came next. Specifically written for the instruments, it reflects this neglected composer’s identification with the Irish tragedy of 1916, and its meditative mood was brought out in a performance of exquisite sensitivity.
Some more arrangements followed the interval: the lightweight, yet appealing Victorian Kitchen Garden Suite by Paul Reade, arranged for flute and viola, and a couple of tangos by the these days ubiquitous Piazzolla.

If in the tangos a reverberant harp replaced the drier guitar for which they were written, with acoustically questionable success, everything finally came together in great style for the work that rivalled Bax’s Trio for status: Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp. Rich in instrumental and harmonic colour, this advanced, purpose-built work is loaded with nuances that were brought out by the players with polished finesse, showing us how fortunate we are to be served such riches of sheer musicianship on our doorstep.

© John Rushby-Smith

20 September 2012 Endellion String Quartet: Haydn, Bartók, Beethoven

Unbelievably, more time has elapsed since Bartók’s Second String Quartet was written than between it and the late Beethoven quartets whose mantle it so clearly inherits. Like late Beethoven it is overtly modernistic in the way it stretches musical language and challenges the old order, and it set a standard for the twentieth century that few composers in the medium have been able to emulate since.

In the inaugural concert of the Malvern Concert Club’s new season the Endellion Quartet met Bartók’s other challenge – that of performance – with a maturity that drew the audience into the work, explaining its structural intricacies through focussed playing alone and rendering redundant the showy athletic gestures of youth. Consequently the performance had great depth. The players’ virtuosity in the tumultuous central allegro was nothing short of brilliant and the pensive intensity of the final movement was intensely moving.

If Bartók’s work was the meat in the sandwich, the bread and butter came in the form of Haydn’s witty ‘Lark’ Quartet and Beethoven’s Razumovsky No.2. The Haydn got off to a rather shaky start with some surprising lapses in intonation, but once things settled down it received an ebullient performance that befitted its status as a vehicle for Johann Tost, the violinist who commissioned it, and for Andrew Watkinson, the Endellion’s first violin who stepped into Tost’s shoes with panache.

The danger in finishing such a programme with the Beethoven was that after the Bartók it could so easily have sounded tame. That it didn’t had more to do with Beethoven than with the performance. The first three movements were drawn well enough, if somewhat routinely, but the finale was simply too fast for its own good; precision suffered, and by the time the pìu presto coda arrived there was simply nowhere to go other than to make a mad dash for the line.

Significantly it was the Bartók that drew by far the warmest applause of the evening. Perhaps one day the tradition of putting ‘modern’ music before the interval and then bringing everyone back to revere yet another performance of an established ‘classic’ will surrender to a bolder view. The Endellions are noted for their dedication to new music. Could this have been an opportunity missed?

© John Rushby-Smith