10 March 2016 Emma Johnson and Friends: Weber, Mozart, Schubert

The final concert of the season was given by Emma Johnson ‘and Friends’, these comprising the Carducci Quartet and three other outstanding British musicians, all of whom studied at Cambridge. The first piece was Weber’s effervescent Clarinet Quintet Op.34, a work packed with memorable tunes tempered by occasional moments of Romantic angst. Emma Johnson made much of the virtuosity of the piece, entertaining the audience with an extravagant array of physical gestures intended to point up the expressive import of each phrase. I was not convinced that Weber’s composition could support this weight of expressivity, and the relentless movement, engaging at first, became tiresome. The Carducci quartet accompanied beautifully. The second piece was Mozart’s mellow Quintet for French Horn and Strings K.407, performed by the celebrated hornist Alec Frank-Gemmill and a quartet of violin, two violas and cello. The Carducci’s second violinist, Michelle Fleming, did a splendid job as second viola. Frank-Gemmill creates absorbing performances with no gestures or display of any kind, relying on his immaculate sense of timing, balance, intonation and phrasing. Here was real chamber music, the strings equal partners with the horn.

The Schubert Octet (D. 803) was equally enthralling, whether in the exuberant concertante passages or in those intricate duets and trios of strings and woodwind that demand virtuosity of a different kind. Each of the musicians responded imaginatively, to Schubert’s endlessly inventive writing and to each other as creative musicians. Emma Johnson was an exemplary leader of her wind section (clarinet, bassoon and horn), while the whole ensemble responding to her vivacious musical personality. The double-bassist, Chris West, deserves special mention, coordinating and driving the ensemble with a rhythmic bass line that was always vibrant, beautifully shaped and supportive of the melody line above. The packed audience in the Forum Theatre became utterly absorbed.

© 2016 Peter Johnson

10 March 2016 Trio Martinů: Martinů, Dvořák, Schubert

The Trio Martinů, for their first appearance at Malvern Concert Club, presented piano trios by two of their Czech compatriots, Martinů and Dvořák, and Schubert’s late, great Trio in E flat. There is something very special about the way these musicians make music: a combination of intense concentration and an apparent ease of expression arising from absolute technical security. There are no individual egos here, just three fine musicians dedicated to making music together. Their programme opened with Martinů’s second trio in D minor, composed in America soon after the Second World War, a piece characterized by an unsettled harmonic and rhythmic language. For this ensemble, the abrupt changes and strange cadences were entirely natural and in their performance utterly convincing. Dvořák’s Trio No. 1 followed, a relatively early piece composed at a time when the composer was still seeking an individual style. Again, the honest, unassuming style of performance allowed the music to speak for itself. In both works, there was no hint of coercion from the musicians, no suggestion that the music needed ‘expressing’ or interpreting – a wonderful and rare artistic illusion.

After the interval, the performance of Schubert’s Trio No. 2 in E flat fulfilled all expectations. Composed in 1827 and one of this composer’s last works, this piece is built of musical ideas that are often bewitchingly simple, yet cast over a huge temporal canvas. The Trio Martinů are the perfect musicians to bring off such challenging music, perfectly pacing those long, winding sequences and marking the more incisive passages with precision and always perfect ensemble. For the encore we were treated to the dramatic closing section of Dvořák’s Dumky Trio, leaving us wanting to hear much more from this remarkable ensemble.

© 2016 Peter Johnson

19 February 2016 Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard: Bliss, Parry, Elgar, Holst, Howells

Malvern Concert Club’s day-time concert on 19th February featured the violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck and the pianist Matthew Rickard, intelligent and skilled musicians who take the trouble to seek out new repertoire, research it thoroughly and perform it with commitment and technical mastery. They presented a programme of little known English music from around the turn of the 20th century, including three substantial sonatas and a couple of light, ‘early ‘ works: Holst’s Five Pieces from around 1904 and Elgar’s Allegretto, an ‘occasional’ piece composed for the Gedge family in Malvern and here performed with a naïve charm. Of the three larger pieces, the huge Sonata in D by Sir Hubert Parry was the least interesting. The lovely soaring violin lines and the energetic Finale hardly redeem the monster of a piano part which, despite admirable management by the pianist, amounted to little more than over-blown Brahms. Much more interesting was the one-movement Sonata by Arthur Bliss, composed in 1912. The 21 year old composer has already mastered the new English ‘pastoral’ style and discovered a distinctive voice within it.

The climax of the concert, and a revelation for those unfamiliar with this repertoire, was the Sonata No.2 by Sir Herbert Howells. Composed in 1917 and since forgotten, this piece has been reconstituted from extant manuscripts by the Howells scholar Paul Spicer and given its first modern performance and recording by Marshall-Luck and Rickard. Their Malvern performance captured the subtlety of Howells’ phrasing and rubato, perfectly judging that slow rising to an ecstatic climax and the equally measured falling away to the pervasive melancholy of this war-time work. What other marvels of Howells’ chamber music await rediscovery, we may wonder?

This concert, in St. Edmund’s Hall, was the first day-time concert in recent times and attracted a large audience.

© 2016 Peter Johnson

With 113 seasons under their belt, the Malvern Concert Club could hardly be more experienced in the art of running successful concerts. This week, however, saw a first for the long established committee: described as an “experiment” the society put on its first daytime event. If they felt any trepidation in the run up, it was surely relieved by the packed out venue (St Edmund’s Hall), total engagement of the audience, and the sheer excellence of the performance.

Rupert Marshall-Luck and Matthew Rickard have been playing together for a number of years, specialising in English music from the first half of the 20th century, with a particular interest in discovering neglected, or piecing together unfinished works. Indeed, two of the pieces performed were given their world premieres by the duo. Their enthusiasm for the cause and innate sympathy for the style was immediately apparent.
Glancing through the programme, the list of composers could not be more well known to the English music buff, including Parry, Holst and Howells, but pieces chosen subverted the audience’s expectations. As Marshall-Luck pointed out, one tends to associate Parry with rousing choral anthems, not intricate chamber music.

Opening with Bliss’ Sonata for Piano and Violin, Marshall-Luck and Rickard gave an intense and powerful account, gripping the audience from the word go. The concert was book-ended with another sonata, Howell’s Sonata no. 2, which provided an interesting contrast. Contrast is a word that could be applied to the piece itself, which experiments with varied techniques and styles in both instruments; the spine-tinglingly beautiful melodic lines in the second movement, to a spikey, lively third movement, to a rumbustious and fast paced finale. Particularly striking was the flow of give and take between the two players, so attuned to the slightest nuance of the other. The partnership was seamless.
It must be hard to programme a concert in Malvern without a tip of the hat to the town’s finest son, Edward Elgar, to whom the duo paid their respects in a charming little piece based on the surname some of his pupils.

The programme was well balanced, and Marshall-Luck’s introductions were both insightful and engaging – my impression of Parry has shifted now I know he was something of a boy-racer, whizzing his motor car around the country in an attempt to beat his own records!
Malvern Concert Club’s daytime experiment was an undisputed success, and this inaugural concert should inspire them to continue with such a promising undertaking.

© 2016 Rosamund Hatfield, composer rosamundhatfield.com

21 January 2016 Danny Driver: Handel, Chopin, Adès, Beethoven

Malvern Concert Club continued its inspiring season with a recital by Danny Driver. Tall and slightly crouched at the keyboard, this pianist makes no gesture or interpretative nuance that is not entirely about the music, be it familiar or unfamiliar, miniature or monumental. He began with Handel’s Fifth Suite, disarmingly simple but for those sudden shifts of harmony and the spectacular ending to the ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ variations. He then played three of Chopin’s most intimate pieces, the last of Op.17 and the first two of the Op.24 Mazurkas, played as if he were the only audience yet somehow projecting to the back of the hall. Three recently composed Mazurkas by Thomas Adès followed immediately. Adès is one of our most celebrated contemporary composers (his opera The Tempest has been produced at Covent Garden and at the New York Met), who also works professionally as pianist and conductor. These Mazurkas offer reflections on Chopin’s miniaturist form from an atonal, twenty-first-century perspective, using the entire range of the piano yet maintaining clarity of texture and a quiet humour. He shows that atonal music, when played with such sensitivity and understanding, can be truly beautiful as well as entertaining.

The second half comprised Beethoven’s huge ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, Op.106, a work which foreshadows the Ninth Symphony and which continued to pose questions for composers and pianists well into the twentieth century. In this programming we could hear references to the Handel (all those scales!), to the Chopin (in the rapt intimacy of the slow movement), and to the Adès in the exploration of unusual piano sonorities, but above all, the performance left us in awe of Beethoven’s monumental musical imagination and of the pianist able to project this sublime music without bombast but with magnificent authority. This was pianism of the highest order.

© 2016 Peter Johnson

7 January 2016 Mark Padmore & Paul Lewis: Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, Wolf

Malvern music lovers enjoyed a feast of music-making by the tenor Mark Padmore and the pianist Paul Lewis. In the first half were settings of Heine poems by Schumann and Brahms, whilst the second offered contrasting Goethe settings by Schubert and Wolf. The programme included a number of rarities, not least Hugo Wolf’s fine settings of Goethe’s translations of poems by the 14th century Persian poet Hafez, which celebrate the virtues of alcohol, lament old-age and excoriate hypocrisy – one of the songs memorably begins with the couplet ‘As long as we are sober / The bad things please’. Padmore drew on his fine dramatic skills here, whilst Lewis performed his important solo passages with suitable humour.

The concert began with Schumann’s Liederkreis (‘song-cycle’) Op.24. Heinrich Heine’s poetry maybe relies too heavily on standard metaphors of lost love, but Schumann more than compensates with fine melody and inventive detail: in the third song, the lines ‘Then dreams of old came / And stole into my heart’ come alive with the setting of the word ‘heart’ (‘Herz’) to an unexpected high but quiet note. Padmore sings this in a plaintive falsetto, one of the many magical moments he found in both the Schumann and the Brahms Lieder.

The second half began with Schubert settings of Goethe, including the three ‘Harper’ songs from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister. As Padmore noted in his introduction, there are no nightingales or roses here, just a bleak loneliness that inspires music of strong dramatic reserve perfectly expressed by the restrained but moving performances.

For Malvern Concert Club this was an extra concert made possible by funding from The Elmley Foundation in celebration of its twentieth anniversary, an initiative duly rewarded by the very large and attentive audience.

© 2016 Peter Johnson

In this lieder recital, the starting point was not the composers but the poets, with the evening’s two halves devoted to settings of Heinrich Heine and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe respectively.

First came Schumann’s Liederkreis Op 24, dating from 1840, the year of his marriage to Clara and thus his year of song. Heine’s nine poems do not exactly constitute bliss – too much death and tombstones for that – yet Schumann’s outpouring of passion is unmistakable. Often it is the final surge which comes in the wonderful piano postludes that so distinguishes the songs and Padmore and Lewis’s sensitivity in ceding or taking up the emotional momentum gave an added integrity, culminating in Mit Myrten und Rosen.

Brahms too adored Clara Schumann and his settings of Heine were also effectively love letters: in Meerfahrt, in particular, his experience of love, apparently so close yet in reality unattainable, had an injured resignation. In Schubert’s settings of Goethe, again, it was the drifting between joy and pain that Padmore coloured with his precise weighting of words. But, if the mood had until this point seemed relatively restrained, the vigour of the last Schubert song, An Schwager Kronos, led well into that of the final sequence by Hugo Wolf. This is not obvious Padmore territory but, beginning with Der Rattenfänger, Hamelin’s Pied Piper, he and Lewis upped the whole dynamic and the volume with it. Going on to characterise boldly Wolf’s settings from Goethe’s West–östlicher Divan, and their intoxication of love, poetry and wine, any aura of austerity was dispelled. Instead, there was a distinct feeling of the music demanding its performers let rip and of them doing just that.

© 2016 Rian Evans, The Guardian

The above review is of Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis’s recital at St George’s, Bristol, in the identical programme performed the day after that at Malvern Concert Club

26 November 2015 Cavaleri Quartet: Stravinsky, Mozart, Puccini, Brahms

One of the UK’s finest new generation ensembles, the Cavaleri Quartet, treated Malvern Concert Club to a feast of exceptional music-making at its November concert. The programme featured four composers, Stravinsky, Mozart, Puccini and Brahms, and for each they found a distinctive voice. First came Stravinsky’s tiny Three Pieces from 1914, each piece vividly etched. The plangent third piece set the scene for Mozart’s D minor Quartet K.421, not for the powerful, early Romantic extravaganza of many older interpretations but an intimate exploration of beautiful musical ideas. This was chamber music playing at its finest: the musicians relished every turn of Mozart’s mercurial imagination with subtlety of tone and great rhythmic flexibility. Yet from the first bar of the next piece, Puccini’s I Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums), they could transport us to a fin-de-siècle world of luscious harmony and glorious vocalises.

The second half comprised Brahms’ third quartet, in B flat, Op.67, a piece suffused with pastoral references. Here was bucolic charm, complete with hunting horns and folky dances. Only occasionally did the musicians allow themselves a true fortissimo, and the grand viola solo in the third movement here became a joyous celebration. Like Mozart, Brahms ends his quartet with a set of variations, each section of which is repeated, but for this quartet repeats are not repetitions but opportunities for further subtle variations of tone and timing. At the end the audience whooped and cheered, with every justification.

It was a joy to share this concert with a number of musical children freshly enthused by the recent children’s workshop on creative music-making, sponsored by Malvern Concert Club with financial assistance from The Elmley Foundation.

© 2015 Peter Johnson

15 October 2015 The Schubert Ensemble: Schubert, Enescu, Schumann

Over the last three years, The Schubert Ensemble have been performing major works by the Romanian composer George Enescu. Thursday’s offering was the Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 29, composed around 1940, a work which shuns all reference to Romanian folk music and instead grapples with the problem confronting so many composers in the mid-twentieth century: how to compose when the world around you is disintegrating. Enescu’s solution is a curious mix of nostalgia for the sumptuous harmonies of early Ravel (from the age of 13, Enescu spent most of his life in Paris), and a melodic language that is angular, fragmented, unable (as it were) to sing freely. The ensemble perfectly captured the elusiveness of those wispy, fragmented melodies. The surprise comes at the end, a strong, striding melody and the first really emphatic moment of the entire work.

The programme began with a one-movement string trio by the young Schubert (D.471). This begins in the style of an eighteenth century divertimento but develops considerable passion in its development. However, the ensemble preferred to underplay the latter, maintaining a cool, classical countenance throughout.

Finally came the ever-fresh Schumann Piano Quintet Op. 44, much of which was beautifully played – the finely judged rhythms of the second movement funeral march, the sweet tone of the violin and wonderfully sensitive piano playing from William Howard stay in the mind; but as in last year’s performances, some of the string melodies failed to take flight, and I found myself listening to the second violin and viola who found the more interesting phrasing and shaping of those richly Romantic phrases. Nonetheless, an interesting, enjoyable and at times moving concert.

© 2015 Peter Johnson

24 September 2015 London Conchord Ensemble: Janáček, Poulenc, Hindemith, Brahms

Malvern Concert Club’s new season opened with the much-acclaimed London Conchord Ensemble. Their programme, mainly of works for wind ensemble, opened with Leoš Janáček’s Mládí (‘Youth’), composed to celebrate the composer’s seventieth birthday in July 1924. This piece is a kaleidoscope of earthy exuberance, nostalgic reflection and plain good fun, all brilliantly captured in the virtuosic playing of the ensemble. There followed Francis Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments, composed in the 1930s, where a passionate, even Romantic expression sometimes breaks through the studied nonchalance of Poulenc’s neoclassical style. Here, the ensemble captured just the right levels of coolness or exuberance as the music demanded.

The second half opened with Paul Hindemith’s second Kleine Kammermusik, Op. 24 No. 2 from 1922. Like many composers of his generation, including Janáček, Hindemith understood the imperative of finding an alternative to the tonal language of Wagner and Brahms, and his solution in the early Kammermusik was to create a world of bright, sometimes jazzy rhythms, extravagant instrumentation, humour, and a harmony that is essentially atonal. The ensemble demonstrated how entertaining this music can be when it is played with such panache and infectious enthusiasm.
Finally came Brahms’ Trio for piano, violin and horn, Op. 40. The clever programming brought out a certain synergy between this piece and Hindemith’s Kammermusik, both exploring unusual combinations of instruments and avoiding the sumptuous harmonic language that characterises much of Brahms’ chamber music. Quite unforgettable were the muffled funeral rhythms in the third movement, which the horn player and violinist were both able to intone as barely a whisper. All in all, this was a fascinating and hugely enjoyable concert, thanks in no small part to the virtuosity, discipline, perfect sense of ensemble and above all, musical intelligence of this outstanding ensemble.
© 2015 Peter Johnson