23 April 2015 Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton: Fleurs

On a glorious April evening, a large crowd came to Malvern Concert Club to hear the final concert of the season, a vocal recital presented by the soprano Carolyn Sampson and the pianist Joseph Middleton. The programme, entitled ‘Fleurs’, was a rerun of a recently released and much lauded CD and was offered as an end-of-season treat for the Concert Club audience. This ‘garland’ of songs ranged from Britten’s elusive setting of Pushkin’s cynical poem ‘The Rose and the Nightingale’ (the rose is oblivious to the nightingale’s song), sung in Russian, to the heady exoticism of Purcell’s ‘Sweeter than Roses’ and Fauré’s ‘Les Roses d’Ispahan’. Some rarities from the Lieder and chanson repertoires were also lovingly presented.

The Purcell is a sensual, improvisatory piece that perfectly suits Sampson’s creamy yet agile voice and musicality. It was a joy to hear her real vocal trills, which few singers today are able to achieve. This magical voice is clearly suited to the refined style of Purcell, yet it proved equal to the very different demands of Richard Strauss’s ‘Mädchenblumen’ (‘maiden flowers’), with their long, passionate phrases. Even more demanding technically is Poulenc’s ‘Fleurs’, with its high pianissimos that have defeated many a soprano, especially towards the end of a programme. Sampson’s fine and versatile technique is a match for all these challenges, but it is her sensitivity to style and language that lingers in the mind: her beautiful and characteristic enunciation of French and German and the way she allows the musical shapes to emerge from the very fabric of the language itself. The accompanist, Joseph Middleton, was a perfect match, drawing from the piano the most beautiful, delicate tones, with never a note out of place. Altogether a beautiful recital.

© 2015 Peter Johnson

19 March 2015 Carducci String Quartet: Beethoven, Shostakovich, Elgar

With a packed house, Malvern Concert Club hosted an outstanding concert of chamber music from the Carducci String Quartet. Comprising two married couples, one English, the other Irish, this internationally renowned quartet presents modern quartet playing at its best: passionate, committed playing, excellent ensemble and a lively dialogue between the musicians.

Their programme consisted of Beethoven’s Op. 18 No. 6, Shostakovich’s 11th Quartet and Elgar’s solitary E minor Quartet. With the intervention in the last movement of the Malinconia sections, the Beethoven quartet anticipates the fragmentary structure of some of the late quartets, which in turn provides a model for Shostakovich’s 11th, a continuous sequence of seven short movements. The Carduccis caught the many twists and turns of this fascinating music whilst holding the whole together in an enthralling musical narrative.

Elgar’s quartet, composed soon after the end of World War I, is among the less well-known of his works, perhaps because the opening movement is built from a complex network of taut but fragmentary ideas, with at times almost orchestral textures. The musicians managed these problems with skill and panache, completing their programme with a fine Elgarian flourish.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Michael Kennedy CBE and John McCabe CBE, each an outstanding figure of British musical life closely associated with Malvern Concert Club. It was fitting that for their encore the Carducci chose McCabe’s wild, joyous Scherzo from a quartet composed for the Carduccis. Perhaps one day they will treat us to the whole quartet.

© 2015 Peter Johnson

29 January 2015 Sitkovetsky Piano Trio: Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Dvořák

Malvern Concert Club’s fourth concert of the season featured the UK-based Sitkovetsky Piano Trio (piano, violin and cello), offering three of the grandest nineteenth-century works for this ensemble. Mendelssohn’s second Trio, in C minor, and Dvořák’s third, in F minor cover much the same expressive ground, both being large-scale, virtuosic and passionately romantic works in minor keys. However, this style clearly suits these musicians, and their enthusiasm, confidence and sparkling virtuosity were irresistible.

This is nonetheless still a young ensemble, and Beethoven’s Op. 70 No. 2 exposed some weaknesses: the quieter passages were sensitively played and the runs and arpeggios in the piano quite exquisite, but the louder passages were unforgivingly accentuated, no opportunity missed to apply the full force of the Steinway piano. But what lingers in the mind is the beautiful cello playing, the pianist’s scintillating virtuosity, and the unerring sense of ensemble: the Scherzo of the Mendelssohn was taken at a fiendish tempo that would have defeated any but the finest musicians, and we loved it.

© 2015 Peter Johnson

27 November 2014 Zemlinsky Quartet: Beethoven, Zemlinsky, Dvořák

There was something for everyone in the Zemlinsky Quartet’s concert for Malvern Concert Club on 27 November. Although an authentically Czech ensemble, they take their name from the Austrian composer, Alexander Zemlinsky, whose Quartet No. 3 from 1924 formed the centrepiece of their programme. This piece explores some unusual string sonorities, and in this darkly expressive performance the atonal harmony (redolent of early Schoenberg or Berg) and the fragmentary melodic language all made perfect sense. Only in the finale did the mood lighten, brief references to Bohemian dances hinting at what was to follow, Dvořák’s Quartet No. 10 (Op. 51). Here was airiness and light, the slow, ‘Dumka’ movement floating gently along with just a hint of Slavic nostalgia. After much applause and stamping of feet, we were treated to two encores, including Elgar’s Elegy dedicated to the memory of the Club’s former secretary, Catherine Freeman.

The enjoyment of music-making is evident in everything these musicians play, and each is an exemplary performer. I confess to being captivated from the first bar of Beethoven’s ‘first’ quartet (Op.18, No.1): the elegant shaping of the phrases and the perfect balance, ensemble and tuning together promised a concert as magnificent as it turned out to be.

Congratulations to the Concert Club for bringing these wonderful musicians to Malvern – let’s hope they come again soon.

© 2014 Peter Johnson

23 October 2014 The Schubert Ensemble: Mahler, Enescu, Huw Watkins, Schumann

The Club’s second concert of the season was an unusual programme of works for piano quartet (piano, violin, viola and ‘cello) performed by The Schubert Ensemble. In the first half, a quartet movement composed by the sixteen-year-old Mahler was juxtaposed with a rarely performed late work by the Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu. Whilst the Mahler is expressively indulgent, the Enescu turns away from lyricism and only occasionally hints at Romanian folk idioms. The melodic phrases are fragmentary, and the harmony unpredictable, a twentieth-century language far removed from the positive if indulgent romanticism of the young Mahler. The ensemble gave the Enescu and clean and sensitive performance, but I would have liked more sharply characterized performances from the outer strings (violin and cello) – I found myself listening mainly to the always interesting viola part.

The second half opened with a quartet by the British composer Huw Watkins, specially commissioned by the Ensemble. Commissioning new works is costly and not always well-received by conservative audiences, but the Malvern audience evidently enjoyed this well-shaped and tightly controlled piece. The single three-note figure announced at the start is constantly transformed and reshaped, allowing listeners to follow the ‘argument’ and allow the musicians plenty of space for expressive and dramatic playing, which they all clearly relished. Let us hope that in coming years Malvern audiences will have more frequent opportunities to explore the work of those legions of British composers, young and old, who nowadays have so little opportunity to be heard. The concert closed with Schumann’s Piano Quartet in which, again, the outer strings seemed curiously reticent. The pianist, William Howard, carried the day, managing his complex passage-work with an exquisite delicacy and enviable fluency.

© 2014 Peter Johnson

25 September 2014 Roderick Williams & Susie Allan: Purcell, Gurney, Britten, Schubert

There was a packed audience at the Forum Theatre for the first event of Malvern Concert Club’s new season, a recital by the baritone Roderick Williams (of recent Proms fame), and his accompanist Susie Allan. Williams demonstrated his respect for this audience with an original and sometimes challenging programme of late works by Purcell, Gurney, Britten and Schubert. At the centre was Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, composed in 1965. Blake’s texts are charged with ambiguity and irony, which Britten presents in a refined, economical style where each note counts. The line in The Tyger, ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ hung provocatively but poignantly in the air, the music quite simply adding another dimension to Blake’s provocative thought.

Imaginative programming can affect the ways we hear diverse pieces, and to follow the Britten with the first seven songs from Schubert’s Schwanengesang was to remind us of the temporal and philosophical proximity of Blake and the German early Romantic poets: in both, allusions to nature and the pain of lost love are metaphors of the modern human condition. For me, the subtlety of Schubert’s vocal and instrumental writing became more apparent after attuning my ears to Britten’s refined music.

The first half of the programme explored in a variety of ways the boundaries between madness and sanity. Purcell’s setting of ‘Let the dread engines of eternal will…’ plays upon the stock classical images of destruction, but in Britten’s arrangement the effect is quixotic rather than dramatic. In contrast, the four war songs by Ivor Gurney, composed soon after the end of World War I, are deadly serious, capturing the pain of war in an uncertain, elusive style that clearly anticipates certain aspects of Britten’s mature expression.

How to perform this subtle and intriguing music? Williams and Allan surely found the right solution: a minimum of rhetorical gesture and close attention to the composer’s musical thought. Williams sings with arms hanging loose and minimum body movement, allowing his wonderful, clear voice to become the focus of our attention. Williams needs no cover for defects – there is no excessive vibrato or physical movement – and the result is an utterly involving and wonderful performance. The Club is truly honoured to welcome this justly celebrated singer as its new President, and I’m sure we all eagerly await his next appearance.

© 2014 Peter Johnson

Launching its 112th season, Malvern Concert Club announced the inauguration of the baritone Roderick Williams as President, Michael Kennedy stepping across to the new position of President Emeritus. And by happy coincidence, this opening concert was given by Williams himself.

The expert, probing and empathetic Susie Allan accompanying, Williams delivered a programme almost entirely worlds away from his spectacular Last Night Promming less than a fortnight previously, though there was a tenuous link.

Williams’ Last Night Rule, Britannia was performed with a natural feel for baroque ornamentation, and here in Malvern he revealed himself as totally at home with this country’s greatest baroque composer, Henry Purcell. Purcell provided the opening offering, his Bedlam song, Let the dreadful engines, a mini-concert in itself drawing such a range of compelling delivery from Williams, his Music for a while an encore which summed up all this personable baritone’s gifts: communicative body-language, honeyed tenor-like top notes, and a capacity for colouring words which is unsurpassable (each reiteration of the word “drop” having its own individual character).

Framed between these were songs by Ivor Gurney, heartbreaking in their disintegration of the fragile borderline between genius and mania, Britten’s chilling Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (Williams refreshingly revealing a visionary Peter Pears-like timbre instead of settling for the heavier tones of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who premiered the work), and the Rellstab settings from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, Williams and Allan so responsive to every aspect of these disturbing songs.

© 2014 Christopher Morley Birmingham Post