28 April 2017 The Scott Brothers Duo – Tom and Jonathan Scott

The final concert of the season, brought to us by the Scott Brothers Duo on Thursday 27 April, was a feast of virtuosity and fine musicianship. As a piano-duet team, Jonathan and Tom Scott are always in perfect synchrony, bending and shaping the rhythms as if in one mind. The vast screen, projecting the four hands on the keyboard, obliged us to watch the show as well as listen: for show it was, the pianists expressing their own enjoyment and not afraid to crack jokes in their personable introductions. The programme, too, was blatantly popular, including the William Tell overture, Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody; but behind the showmanship was a strong sense of musical direction, and despite all the excitement the piano was always allowed to sing – there was hardly any thumping of the keyboard even in the loudest passages. Schubert’s perennial Fantasy in F minor began with a perfectly judged tempo – not too slow – and its ‘scherzo’ section was scintillating. The choice of generally fast tempos gave coherence to this ‘four-movements-in-one’ fantasia. Then came Jonathan’s own arrangement of Tarrega’s famous Recuerdos de la Alhambra in which the guitar ‘tremoli’ were magically replicated by Jonathan’s agile fingers, while Tom created a magical, exotic atmosphere from the accompaniment. After the interval we heard a 19th century arrangement of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, followed by Reger’s arrangement of Bach’s famous Prelude and Fugue in A minor, the organ tones replicated by much doubling of solo lines (in perfect synchrony) and rich fillings.
Peter Johnson 

9 March 2017 Emerson String Quartet

Dvořák, Shostakovich, Beethoven

The Emerson String Quartet, one of the leading American quartets of our time and currently on a hectic European tour, brought to Malvern three works: Dvořák’s 11th Quartet Op. 61, Shostakovich’s 4th, Op. 83, and Beethoven’s A minor Quartet, Op. 132. Perhaps responding to the fact that Dvořák’s quartet was a Viennese commission, the Emersons played No. 11 as if it were Brahms, a hyper-expressive approach that I found unconvincing. However, the Finale demonstrated just what could be achieved with a freer, lighter style in which even the frantic mock fugato section shone with an effervescent brilliance. Here at last the performance came together.

The Emersons represent the ‘American’ style of quartet playing characterised by a taut, continuous vibrato and powerful bow-strokes. This style is fast becoming old-fashioned as younger quartets seek to emulate the quieter, more sensuous sounds of period instruments, but Shostakovich wrote his quartets with this older style in mind, and the Emersons’ performance was stunning. Held on a very tight rein, this music became all the more potent in its restraint. It is difficult to imagine those lonely, winding solo lines or those desperate tutti gestures played in any other way.

The Beethoven had many beautiful moments, but the slightly slow tempos and a tendency to sacrifice movement for expression in the Adagio passages sometimes blocked the flow. But the Finale, like the finale of the Dvořák and all the Shostakovich, demonstrated just how outstanding the Emerson quartet can be: the tempo here was perfectly judged, allowing for the subtlest interplay between the instruments whilst maintaining direction unerringly to the end. As an encore we were treated to a subtle, restrained playing of a Bach chorale prelude, arranged for string quartet. In a gracious speech at the end, the British cellist, Paul Watkins, commended the audience for its attentive and enthusiastic listening.

Peter Johnson

Sunday 26 February 2017, Roderick Williams,baritone and Iain Burnside, piano

Die schöne Müllerin by Franz Schubert

This afternoon concert comprised a single work, Schubert’s song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin, a sequence of twenty songs telling a tale of unrequited love. Both poetry and music have a folk-like simplicity which, in the fine performance we heard, nonetheless strikes right to the heart. For much of the time the piano imitates the churning of the mill-wheel or the flowing stream, the music almost always repeated for each verse of the lyric, while the voice has simple but exquisitely crafted melodies; yet in each song there is a slight irregularity, a pause, an unprepared switch from major to minor so that the music is suddenly darkened. In performance these reversals are easily over-played in the name of expression, yet they need, if anything, to be underplayed, the tiniest of gesture, a mere catch in the throat, whilst the slowly turning of fortune must also be sustained. This was the achievement of today’s performers, Roderick Williams, the Club’s President, and pianist Iain Burnside. With no interval or interruption, the piece was allowed to unfold at its own pace, the piano-accompaniments always steady, secure, undemonstrative, the turning marked by the merest inflections of tempo or tone. The final song, The Brook’s Lullaby was sung through each of the five verses in a plangent half-voice, yet beautifully projected; the piano’s strange lefthand chords were perfectly balanced each time round, and the pacing through-out steady, unvarying but always alive. There was a long, deep silence at the end.

Roderick Williams introduced the programme with an account of his journey in preparing this performance, affording a rare insight into the process of preparing a new work. This process may be followed by accessing his blog.

Peter Johnson

26 January 2017 Robert Plane, Sacconi Quartet

Haydn, York Bowen, Glazunov, Brahms

The fourth concert of the season featured the Sacconi String Quartet and the former CBSO clarinettist Robert Plane in a programme including Haydn’s Quartet Op.76 No.1 in G, Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115 and two curiosities. The first of these, York Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet Op.93 for bass clarinet and strings, was the more interesting. Its expressionistic style is reminiscent of early Schoenberg (of the 1st String Quartet), with a highly unstable tonality and complex textures woven from short but strongly characterized atonal figures. This music needs – and received – committed performance, although the silky tones of Robert Plane’s bass clarinet seemed a little bland for this earthy, passionate music. The other curiosity was an early piece by Glazunov, a melancholic meditation entitled Oriental Reverie. As the opener for the second half of the concert, this piece set the tone for a nostalgic performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet.

During the concert, the first and second violinists twice changed places, and it was interesting to note how differently the quartet played under the two leaders. Hannah Dawson (in the two ‘curiosities’) was by the far more interesting player, the quartet as a whole responding to her with positive, engaged playing. Ben Hancox is a less demonstrative player, and the performances under him (the Haydn and Brahms) were generally under-characterised. There was some lovely quiet playing in the Haydn, but ensemble was not always secure and the moments of virtuosity seemed tentative. The Brahms, however, was all about withdrawal. Those fading tones, reminiscent of a faded sepia photograph, were consistently beautiful, but their very beauty concealed the passion, the angst lying just below the surface of this autumnal work. The clarinettist responded with consistently lovely playing, which the audience duly appreciated.

Peter Johnson

24 November 2016 Stile Antico

The Touches of Sweet Harmony –

The Musical World of Williams Shakespeare

What makes and ideal concert? The twelve-voice ensemble Stile Antico came very close with a carefully prepared programme on the theme of Shakespeare. Alongside the familiar Shakespeare songs (There was a lover and his lass and Full Fathom Five), we heard motets and madrigals praising the Virgin Queen (a motet by Byrd and a madrigal by Dowland), extolling the wonders of distant lands (Thomas Weelkes’ Thule and The Andalusian Merchant) and responding to the ever-present religious tensions. The possibility that Shakespeare was a Catholic sympathiser was the pretext for one of William Byrd’s most profound Latin double-motets, Tristitia er anxietas. Towards the end, the theme of death became the focus, with Weelkes’ heartfelt When David heard that Absolom was slain and Gibbon’s madrigal The Silver Swan.

Throughout the programme, every word and phrase was lovingly carressed, with faultless intonation and a resonance of tone that belied the dry acoustic of the theatre. To hear this fine ensemble was not merely a joy but a deeply moving experience.

Various members introduced the items.

Despite its focus on music of Shakespeare’s lifetime, at the very core of this programme were two major Shakespeare settings by contemporary composers. Although the only music by living composers in the entire Concert Club season, performances demonstrated just what can be achieved with a contemporary musical language. Huw Watkins’ The Phoenix and the Turtle sets Shakespeare’s long poem strophically with a Brittenesque lightness in the word-setting and a rapid pacing that rewarded close concentration. Nico Muhly’s Gentle Sleep sets a text from Henry IV part I.  A dissonant but ravishingly beautiful sequence formed by a pianissimo ground to sensuous solo enunciations of the text, the secret in this performance being the absolutely pure intonation, perfect ensemble and spectacular breath control. With no conductor, these fine singers demonstrate just how beautiful both new and old music can be when it is so skilfully prepared and lovingly expressed.

Peter Johnson

27 October 2016 Imogen Cooper piano

Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy, Albeniz

For Malvern Concert Club’s second concert of the season, on 27 October, the pianist Imogen Cooper presented a programme of Schumann, Beethoven, Debussy, de Falla and Albeniz, beginning with Schumann’s rarely performed Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6. Schumann imagined the Davidsbündler as a band of heroes battling the forces of Philistinism in the arts, and in eighteen short pieces he presents a kind of dialectical dance or joust between the passionate Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius. Cooper found just the right weight and pacing, the passionate and the dreamy becoming contrasting facets of the one deeply Romantic persona.

The choice of Beethoven’s lightweight Bagatelles Op. 33 to follow the Schumann risked a sense of anticlimax. Cooper made the most of the contrasts, with bright, crisp tones, sharp rhythms and an alertness to the humour in these pieces, but music that sustained an argument for more than a few minutes might have worked better after Schumann.

The second half also comprised miniatures. De Falla’s heart-felt Homenaje in memory of Debussy led into two of Debussy’s own exotic pieces, the Soirée dans Grenade and the Puerta del Vino, magically played with delicate tones and the subtlest of pedalling. Then came four pieces by Albeniz, which pleasantly sustained our dreams of warm Andalusian nights. In the more extended final piece, Fête-Dieu à Seville, Albeniz attempts to conjure the passions and excitement of a religious street procession with passages of quite ferocious virtuosity, yet the surrounding musical material was not strong enough to support such excesses, and even Imogen Cooper struggled to bring this one off. Why choose such problematic music, I wondered, when there is a superfluity of better-composed and exciting concert-closers by more recent, or even living, composers? The encore, a tiny piece by the Catalan composer Mompou gave us a tantalizing glimpse of a more modern mode of expression. For all that, the grace, refinement and imaginative qualities of Cooper’s playing were a joy to behold.

Peter Johnson

29 September 2016 Chiaroscuro Quartet

Mozart, Haydn, Schubert

The new season opened with Chiaroscuro playing three familiar string quartets on authentic instruments. ‘Period’ stringed instruments are set up very differently to ‘modern’ ones, with gut strings and bows constructed to give shape to each tone or phrase, even a ‘chiaroscuro’, an alternating ‘clarity’ and ‘darkness’ within the phrase. Played with minimal vibrato, very pure tuning and a fine sensitivity to phrasing and texture, these instruments can bring familiar music alive in relevatory ways, as Chiascuro amply demonstrated.

The first half comprised Mozart’s G major Quartet, K. 387 and Haydn’s D minor Quartet, Op.76 No. 2, composed some fifteen years later. Both works contrast classical poise with a more Romantic sensitivity, qualities Chiaroscuro brought into sharp relief. The many rapid violin passages in the Mozart had a gossamer-like delicacy, but the ensemble could snarl or chunter as required, or throw classical poise to the wind as in the finale. Similarly, the slow movement of the Haydn was a gentle courtly dance, standing in stark contrast to the obsessive canons in the ‘Menuetto’ or the very fast finale.

After the interval came Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet. Here was a good deal more ‘oscuro’ than ‘chiaro’. The first movement was taken very fast, with darkly-toned pianissimos and violent, astringent fortes. It was pity that the supercharged tempo was maintained for the delicate second subject ¬– a concession, perhaps, to the twentieth-century fetish of maintaining fixed tempo throughout each movement? – but just what these period instruments can achieve in this repertoire was magically demonstrated at the end of the first movement when the dark minor chords became mysterious, very deep. There were occasional slips in tuning and ensemble, and the cellist’s rather straight playing failed to match the responsiveness of her fellow musicians but for all that, this was a fascinating and rewarding concert.

Peter Johnson