1 May 2014: Aronowitz Ensemble: Bruckner, Schubert

Malvern Concert Club closed its 2013-14 season on 1 May, with a subtle and entrancing concert by the Aronowitz Ensemble. Founded ten years ago and joining the prestigious BBC New Generation Artists scheme two years later, this ensemble has been pushing the boundaries of Romantic performance, both with unusual repertoire, and an approach to interpretation that sensitive rather than self-consciously expressive. The first half consisted of one piece, Bruckner’s String Quintet, from 1879. Running to almost fifty minutes and including passages of complex counterpoint and obscure harmony, this quintet would be intolerably dull in a mediocre performance, yet the Aronowitz held their audience throughout, spinning out the many quieter passages as if time had stopped altogether, and taking care not to overplay the occasional bombastic gestures. The four upper strings (two violins and two violas) generated a wonderfully intricate tapestry, punctuated (like an organ pedal-section) by the cello whose brighter, more soloistic tone merely emphasized the otherworldliness of the upper strings. A key to the success of the performance was the frequent (and brave) use of the quietest sounds: a mere murmur from one of the violas was sufficient to capture and hold the packed Forum Theatre.

The playing of the Bruckner generated huge anticipation for the Schubert String Quintet that was to follow the interval. True to form, we were treated to an interpretation that shunned the big gesture – the steely, masculine style of string playing that became fashionable in the 1990s has given way to an intimacy of tone and sensitivity of expression, even in the raunchier third and fourth movements. The Scherzo was less ‘daemonic’ and ‘tempestuous’, as suggested in the programme note, than bucolic, a village dance that could at any moment dissolve into the night, while in the final movement the curious collapse in the coda became structural, a reminder that music, and this work in particular, begins and ends in silence. And so the final accelerando came as a performative flourish, a gesture of gratitude to the audience. And what an audience, hanging of every sound, every breath!

© 2014 Peter Johnson

John Rushby-Smith was away

13 March 2014 Steven Osborne: Prokofiev, Ravel, Rachmaninov

Steven Osborne treated Malvern Concert Club to an unusual programme by virtuoso pianist-composers, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov, and a third composer Ravel who wrote astonishingly brilliant music for other great pianists of his day. Osborne uses virtuosity with complete musical integrity always at the service of the music. His playing is unpredictable, fresh and inventive. He constantly captures the listeners’ attention and draws them into the performance, and his pianissimo playing is a thing of wonder. At certain times you could have heard a pin drop. Prokofiev’s Sarcasms was full of surprises, as was his fascinating Visions Fugitives. These amazing pieces were cleverly placed at the beginning of each half, provoking and teasing us with a wealth of new ideas.

Before the interval we were given a master class in the exploration of sonorities in Ravel’s Miroirs, as Steven Osborne was at one with the composer, revealing every detail of colour, dynamic and mood in these exquisite pieces. Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No 2 exploded with fireworks, energy and excitement. Fortissimo passages had real impact, and there was superb use of tension and release. Under Osborne’s hands the Hereford Steinway took on a new lease of life, especially in the astonishing execution of the third movement, but also in the exquisitely poetic moments of this overwhelming performance.

It was a privilege to hear such a truly great performer. This was a totally thrilling experience.

© 2014 John Rushby-Smith

Steven Osborne’s impressive recital last night at the Forum Theatre, entirely from memory, ended, in the pianist’s own words, with ‘a little quiet Gershwin’ — a distinctly fluid and classy French impressionist-style improvisation* on the ‘I loves you Porgy’ theme. It followed Rachmaninov’s monumental second piano sonata of 1913 — a work with a strong structure which somehow gets masked by its late-Romantic outpourings — in a dramatic and fluid performance that drew cheers and stamping of feet from the large audience at the end of the evening.
Beginning the second half were sterling performances of the twenty miniature, fleeting movements of Prokofiev’s varied and imaginative Visions Fugitives (1915-17). Joseph Brand’s otherwise informative programme notes are a little ambitious here, inventing an extra two movements.

Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs of 1904-5 — extended and mirrored impressions of night moths, sad birds, a boat on the ocean, a jester’s morning love song and a valley of bells — allowed us to appreciate Osborne’s beautifully spun, glistening passagework and delicate pianissimi. A minor smudge on just one chord towards the end of Alborada del gracioso, rather than spoiling anything, was just a reminder that here was Osborne, playing for us live, without printed music, the most technically difficult of these five pieces.

His recital opened with early, deliberately provocative Prokofiev — the five short Sarcasms dating from 1912-14. The markings at the start of each movement — Tempestoso, Allegro rubato, Allegro precipitato, Smanioso (‘yearning’) and Precipitosissimo (‘very hurried’) — indicate something of the moods here. The effect is dramatic, if not, to our modern ears, completely shocking. The man in the seat behind mine described them as ‘different’.

Steven Osborne, tall, thin and born in Scotland in 1971, is remarkably undemonstrative physically, and makes his enviable technique look easy. When his playing is fiery, as in much of this programme, or when responding to our considerable applause, his body language is still somehow restrained and disciplined. Osborne’s effect on this Malvern Concert Club audience, a group not known for clapping between movements, was the opposite of restrained, delaying the start of Ravel’s La vallée des cloches when the ending of Alborada ignited spontaneous applause.

© 2014 Keith Bramich, Music & Vision

* Editor’s note: based on an arrangement by Bill Evans, according to Steven Osborne

23 January 2014 Atrium String Quartet: Schubert, Britten, Tchaikovsky

The Club’s first New Year concert by the Atrium Quartet featured yet another excellent, varied programme which had something for everyone. Youthful quartets from Schubert, Britten and Tchaikovsky made up an appealing trio of works. The Quartet’s individual style of playing leans towards a palate of dramatic contrasts in dynamics, tone and emotional projection. Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ quartet led by second violin Anton Ilyunin seemed at times hard driven, with the balance between lyricism and tone, and forceful drama tending toward the latter. Schubert needs greater reserve, delicacy and delicious lyricism than in this performance.

The Britten Quartet No.1 was exhilarating. This work suits the Atrium Quartet to perfection. They were able to give full rein to their dramatic way of playing. The first violin here was Alexey Naumenko, whose playing and leading was subtle and very fine, bringing control and poise to the ensemble. Individual strengths shone through and full justice was done to the virtuosity of Britten’s score. The youthful spirit of the Tchaikowsky was projected with exuberant rhythmic energy, and some sweet, unaffected solo playing from Naumenko especially in the Andante Cantabile. This performance was a great hit with the audience, who managed to ignore some very intrusive foot tapping, which at times distracted from the music itself.

The Quartet showed off their instrumental virtuosity again in the encore, a Tango by Piazolla. It seemed out of place in this programme, but it was enthusiastically received by a large audience. As we have come to expect, Joseph Brand’s programme notes were exemplary.

© 2014 John Rushby-Smith

21 November 2013 Ex Cathedra: J S Bach

It would be hard to imagine anything more rewarding to listen to than the music of Bach beautifully played and sung. This was precisely the treat served up to the Malvern Concert Club audience by Ex Cathedra, the early music vocal and instrumental ensemble that continues to thrive under its founder-director Jeffrey Skidmore. Their programme consisted of four of Bach’s motets, two in each half sandwiching one of the solo Cello Suites. The choir sings with great precision and unanimity, but without the suppression of personality, so that one can always appreciate the prowess of individual singers. At first, exuberance sometimes overcame discretion and the odd voice stuck out, not helped by the dry acoustics of the Forum Theatre, but blend improved as the evening progressed, and the glorious ebullience of the closing fugue of Singet dem Herrn (Sing unto the Lord) had the audience clamouring for an encore, and what better than more of the same. Splendid stuff. Throughout, the choir was accompanied by an authentic, baroque-style continuo of cello, bass, chamber organ and theorbo lute. One word sums up their playing: superb. Most mesmerising was the effortless agility of bass-player Kate Aldridge, whose discreet virtuosity was on a par with that of family member Andrew Skidmore’s classy navigation of the First and Fourth Cello Suites. Playing a gorgeously even-toned, 18th century German instrument, his elegant performances were finely-wrought, devoid of flamboyant gesture and misplaced rubato yet at all times endowed with the utmost musicality.

© 2013 John Rushby-Smith

17 October 2013 The Schubert Ensemble: Beethoven, Enescu, Dvořák

The award-winning Birmingham-based Schubert Ensemble are great champions of the music of Romanian-born George Enescu, once described, according to Joseph Brand’s excellent programme note, as ‘the 20th century’s greatest unknown composer.’ It’s an impossible accolade if you think about it, but great composer he certainly was. Completed in 1909, his Piano Quartet No.1 carries echoes and chicken/egg pre-echoes of composers from Fauré and Ravel to Scriabin, Symanowski, Rachmaninov and even Shostakovich. A virtuoso violinist himself, Enescu didn’t spare his musicians either. It’s a formidable work that demands formidable virtuosity, and the Schubert Ensemble were clearly in their element as they wove their way through the awesome warps and wefts of Enescu’s vivid tapestry with gusto, if occasionally at the expense of serenity and balance. Making its debut at the Malvern Concert Club, Hereford’s big Steinway has an incisive upper register, and greater weight at the bass end and a less forceful attack at the top would have supported the strings better, while allowing them to expose more of Enescu’s subtleties. Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No.2, encountered the same problem. Hard-driven, it was exciting in parts for sure, but spare on tenderness.

Tenderness certainly marked the opening and closing works. Beethoven dedicated his happy, single-movement Piano Trio No 8 in B flat to the daughter of close friends ‘for the encouragement of her piano playing.’ In the Schuberts’ rendition you could almost hear the dedicatee counting beats, somewhat at the cost of the lilting Beethovenian flow suggested by the 6/8 time signature and allegretto marking. After the drama of the main works, the ensemble’s own arrangement of Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me made a soothing encore as it wafted us back to the palms and aspidistras of the Winter Gardens.

© 2013 John Rushby-Smith

26 September 2013 Allegri Quartet: Haydn, Alec Roth, Beethoven

Sixty years young, and despite having had many changes of personnel over the years, the Allegri Quartet still commands an enviable international reputation, and in the opening concert of the Malvern Concert Club’s 111th season it was easy to know why. Proceedings began with a sparkling performance of Haydn’s ever-ingenious ‘Rider’ Quartet that exposed every nuance of the composer’s boundless wit and wisdom. Played with great poise, the slow movement was exceptionally beautiful, while the finale’s dangerously breakneck tempo was awesome in its precision. The concert concluded with an eloquent, perfectly balanced performance of Beethoven’s great Opus 127 Quartet, whose intensely argued structures were projected with a thoughtful clarity that threw light on the work’s complex inner forces.

All reason enough to be enthralled, but the concert was commendable for another reason too. Between these towering works came the world première of the Quartet No.4 by Malvern resident Alec Roth, commissioned especially by the Club with help from the Kay Trust. Roth fulfilled his brief with an expertly-crafted confection whose four rather similar movements fused minimalist algorithms redolent of Steve Reich with echoes of tangos by Piazzolla and occasional snippets of Elgar that were doubtless intended as a tribute to the Club’s founder. Although comparatively lightweight in the context (something the composer himself disarmingly acknowledged,) this new quartet is certainly a worthy addition to the Allegri’s repertoire, and it was played with the same brilliance that marked the outer two works in a concert that has set the bar high for a marvellous season to come.

© 2013 John Rushby-Smith

Faced with the first performance of his new string quartet immediately following the Allegri Quartet’s deliciously subtle rendering of Haydn’s ‘Rider’ Quartet, British composer Alec Roth (born 1948) elected to speak to the 400-strong audience, to try to put some space between Haydn and his own music. More in the manner of an after-dinner speech than a composer trying to explain his newly-created music to the public, Roth told us the story of his once having to submit programme notes for a concert in a hurry, before writing the music, and having later to apologise on stage for notes that turned out to have no connection to the piece performed. He maintains that this experience has taught him not to be too specific when writing about his compositions, maybe also not wanting to restrict listeners’ imaginations. As a result, before hearing his String Quartet No 4, all we knew about it was that it has four movements, that it was commissioned by Malvern Concert Club for its 111th season (using a donation from The Kay Trust), and that the score contains those famous lines from the prologue of William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman, beginning ‘… one May morning in the Malvern Hills …’

Roth used a comparison between music and food to explain to Malvern’s audience of mostly Concert Club members that we ourselves were part of the process of creation. His analogy was that the composer writes the recipe, the musicians cook the meal, and that it’s only at the mystical point of consumption by the audience that music is created.

Should the diners be aware of the recipe or the techniques used by the kitchen staff? The sublime, whether in food or music, most readily appears, in my experience, when I’m aware of neither. At two moments in Alec Roth’s String Quartet No 4, once each in the third and fourth movements, I heard from the Allegri Quartet sounds which seemed to transcend my expectation of what four string players might produce. In the case of the fourth movement, I can only describe this as approaching the sound of a harmonium. My point, though, is that to achieve transcendence, the recipe writer and his cooks need to be experts. Alec Roth certainly knows his way around the medium of the string quartet, and the Allegri has the technique and clarity to bring his music to life.

The first movement fades from nothing, string harmonics growing and leading to a kind of ostinato figure, first in unison and then introducing harmonies, getting louder, and leading to rich, laboured, slow chords which break off suddenly. There’s a pause and the ostinato pattern returns, but modified. Roth, who moved to Malvern two years ago, quotes here from Elgar’s Enigma theme — presumably in homage to Malvern Concert Club, founded by Worcestershire’s most famous composer. Roth’s quartet is never dull — this music is always approachable, and continually pulsing, changing, dancing and evolving. Its twenty minutes (or so), with a dancy scherzo-like second movement (complete with tongue-in-cheek Haydnesque ending, pizzicato then legato), slower third movement with jazzy syncopated faster central section, and the sedate dance of the last movement with an almost habanera-like feel, all seemed to pass in a flash. The ending is rather extraordinary, mirroring the start, so fading through harmonics to nothing, but with an added folksy tune, as if a very modern traveller strolls off across the Malverns, vanishing through the mist towards British Camp …

As already hinted, the Haydn G minor quartet Op 74 No 3, which began the programme, suited the Allegri Quartet like a glove, and their subtle performance was sweet and mischievous by turns. In the second half we heard the Beethoven E flat major Quartet Op 127, the first of the late great quartets, and again expertly performed. A memorable and successful start to Malvern’s 111th season of concerts, then.

© 2013 Keith Bramich, Music and Vision

For any composer living in Malvern, as Alec Roth now does, the spirit of Elgar is always present. And like Elgar, who said music was all around us, Roth’s String Quartet No. 4 takes for its inspiration the evocative atmosphere of the Malvern Hills.

However, the quartet – commissioned by Malvern Concert Club with funds from The Kay Trust, and premiered most persuasively by the Allegri Quartet – is refreshingly free of the English pastoralism perpetuated by some present-day composers. Roth does inscribe the score with lines from ‘Vision of Piers Plowman,’ but these serve merely to hint at the quartet’s content and style.

So no bird songs, babbling brooks or folky tunes – and long-winded ruminations are definitely out. Instead, Roth adopts a minimalist approach, with repeated rhythms, gentle syncopations, bite-sized themes and modal harmonies employed to create mood and meaning.
It’s an attractively compact, modest work in which ideas progress with a formal logic that helps the listener anticipate what is coming next. For example, there’s a clear recapitulation in the first movement; and the drifting wisps of melody that open the third (misty mornings, perhaps?) are revisited at its close.

Even more satisfying is the elegiac finale, where ingenuous note-patterns and a rising 5-note ostinato suggest bigger things to come, but instead gently evaporate into nothingness, ending with the haunting glissando harmonics we heard at the start.

© 2013 David Hart, Birmingham Post