Review: 26 April 2018 Britten Oboe Quartet”

The 115th Season closed with a fine concert by the Britten Oboe Quartet, led by the oboist Nicholas Daniel. Daniel plays with a supreme delicacy, perfect for Mozart’s exquisitely fashioned Oboe Quartet, K. 370, with which the concert ended. This performance was in itself worth travelling a long way for, but we also heard a number of rarely performed English works, including a delightful Andante and Allegro for oboe quartet by the 21-year old Elgar, E J Moeran’s beautifully scored Fantasy Quartet of 1946, and an interesting if somewhat austere String Trio in E minor by Lennox Berkeley. More familiar was Britten’s imaginative Phantasy Quartet, written when he was a mere 19 years old but sometimes looking forward to his late works (such as the Third Quartet). But the pièce de resistance was Oliver Knussen’s magnificent Cantata for oboe and string trio, written in 1977. For forty years Knussen has been a passionate exponent of the New Music, as composer and conductor, and his Cantata demonstrates the expressive power of this new language. The title refers to the way the piece alternates between freer, recitative-like passages and more formal aria-like sections, but the former were never sterile (as sometimes in the Baroque solo cantata) and the latter never enslaved to regular four-square rhythms. The harmony breathed the fresh air of atonality, floating rather than tied to a tonal base. Knussen writes beautifully for his instruments, and the musicians not only understood this music but clearly loved it. Especially moving was the closing section, a heart-rending, broken Berceuse. All the works were engagingly introduced by members of the ensemble, the introduction to the Knussen being especially informative. These musicians enjoy performing and unselfconsciously communicate their enjoyment. Schumann’s Mondnacht, arranged for this ensemble by the contemporary English composer Colin Matthews, provided a suitably contemplative close to this delightful evening.

Professor Peter Johnson
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Review: 18 February 2018 Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside

After Roderick Williams’ and Iain Burnside’s Die schöne Müllerin last year, this Sunday’s performance of Schubert’s Winterreise was eagerly awaited. Both cycles tell of lost love, but whereas Die schöne Müllerin has moments of real joy, Winterreise is pervaded by a quiet despair. Even the occasional moments of peace appear only as dreams. How, then, are the performers to maintain our interest? The answer, as Williams and Burnside wonderfully demonstrated, was to play it straight: there were no fancy effects, no exaggerated expression, for these musicians could rely on the power and beauty of Schubert’s music and of their own skill and musicianship to give it voice. Every detail – the colour of a vowel, the bite of a consonant, the richness or bleakness of tone, the phrasing and balance – was matched precisely to the needs of the music and poetry. Much of the singing was pianissimo, yet from near the back of the theatre I could hear every detail: nothing was lost. The accompaniment was exquisitely refined and never obtrusive.

Other singers have made more of the occasional forte, for example the ‘mein Herz!’ phrases in Die Post. I felt that Williams gave less than his full voice here, perhaps for technical reasons, yet the restraint was itself poignant, as if to mark the futility of any overt expressive gesture. In an engaging and thoughtful introduction, Williams spoke of the surreal quality of Müller’s poetry, and both singer and pianist found this also in the music. Harrowing yet always beautiful, their performance was as delicate, elusive and profound as we are likely to hear. I very much look forward to hearing these wonderful musicians present the third of Schubert’s trilogy of song cycles, Schwanengesang.

Peter Johnson

25 January 2018: Tasmin Little, Martin Roscoe

A programme consisting entirely of Beethoven violin sonatas may seem daunting to the uninitiated, but Malvern audiences know better and packed the Forum Theatre for this concert, the first instalment of a complete Beethoven cycle. Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe selected the first and last sonatas, in D and in G respectively, and in-between placed the most dramatic of the set, the seventh in C minor. Beethoven identifies all these sonatas as ‘for piano and violin’, acknowledging that the piano often carries the main thematic material, but this can be problematic for the pianist playing a modern concert grand. Roscoe maintained the necessary prominence without once overpowering the violin. His undemonstrative yet carefully shaped phrasing, the way he carried the music forward without unduly pressing the tempo, and the clarity of tone even in the most dramatic moments (of which there are plenty in the C minor sonata), were a joy to listen to.

Tasmin Little is deservedly a star in the firmament of English classical music and a musician who knows how to engage with her audience. Her introductory remarks were amusing and informed, her dresses gorgeous (for the second half she changed from a black sequined dress to a luminous peach number), and her playing was on the whole sensitive to the need to yield much of the limelight to the piano. There were many beautiful moments, especially in the exchange of figures with the piano, now playful, now virtuosic or demonstrative. Towards the end of the twelfth sonata, where the music unexpectedly falls into an intimate Adagio, she drew us into a magical, secretive world. There were, however, moments when a wide vibrato intruded upon the music, in the cantabile melody in the second movement of the C minor Sonata, for example; but all-in-all this was an exciting and engaging concert, and a fine opening to the cycle.

Peter Johnson

23 November 2017: Leon McCawley

This recital of mainly nineteenth-century piano music began with a near-immaculate performance of Mozart’s early Sonata K.282. This sonata, from 1774, is easily overlooked, and McCawley showed how profound it can be when performed with an alert musical intelligence, an astonishing control of the keyboard and care for every detail. The total absence of ‘attitude’ allowed this music to speak for itself. In contrast, Schubert’s Three Pieces D.946 are extended studies in Romantic expression, demanding demonstrative presence from the performer. McCawley’s playing was always beautiful, the textures gorgeously shimmering and rippling, but I missed that turbulence of style that marks Schubert’s late style.

The second half began with three of Liszt’s arrangements of Schubert’s songs, and here a delicate balance was maintained between Romantic expression and Classical clarity, Die junge Nonne suitably restless, Du bist die Rüh’ rapturously restrained. Auf dem Wasser zu singen became ever more exciting, eventually erupting at the end when, for a glorious moment, the pianist threw caution to the wind. In contrast, Brahms’s Three Intermezzi Op. 117 had a lovely intimacy; yet its classical poise ­– hardly any rubato – tended to conceal those delicate improvisatory twists and turns. Finally, came Chopin’s crowd-puller, the Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53. Once again the performance was immaculate, those ferocious left-hand octaves in the second section very fast but perfectly executed. Yet without that frisson of being ‘on the edge’, the virtuosity was merely entertaining. That said, this was a wonderful recital, aptly concluded with the encore, Schumann’s Abschied (‘Farewell’). As a performer of music where classical clarity can trump Romantic exuberance, McCawley has few peers.

Peter Johnson

26 October 2017: Doric String Quartet

The Doric Quartet is an ensemble of young players dedicated to the ‘new English’ school of quartet playing, drawing on period-instrument styles in their light bowing, selective use of vibrato and pure intonation. The cellist, John Myerscough, provides the engine of this quartet, freeing the upper parts to embellish and reflect as required. And so, in the finale of Mendelssohn’s E flat Quartet Op. 44 No. 3, with which the concert ended, the first violin (Alex Redington) presented his virtuosic passages as expressive roulades rather than mere passagework. And instead of pushing their instruments to maximum intensity, these musicians sought transparency of texture, surely as the composer intended.

The concert opened with Thomas Adès’ The Four Quarters, premiered in 2011 and already celebrated as a major contribution to the quartet repertoire. The title signifies four periods of a single day, the final movement (‘the twenty-fifth hour’) being a contemplative reflection upon the day. There is a quicksilver quality to Adès’ writing, with frequent stylistic references to his twentieth-century antecedents, Bartók, Shostakovitch, Berg, Britten (the slow tread of the third movement closely resembles the closing movement of Britten’s Third Quartet), and the more radical modernists in the joyously ‘chaotic’ (but in fact highly organised) second movement. Adès integrates these influences into a consistent, personal and always engaging voice. John Myerscough gave the piece an engaging and much appreciated introduction.

The high point of the concert was, however, Haydn’s Quartet Op. 20 No. 4, composed in 1772. Its programming immediately after the Adès allowed us to register its truly modernist qualities. There is an extraordinary quick-fire inventiveness and, for its day, a torrent of new techniques of musical expressivity. And the musicians captured this expressivity at every turn and in every nuance. The only problem with this marvellous concert was that there was no encore, for we dearly wanted to hear more.

Professor Peter Johnson
Birmingham Conservatoire

21 September 2017: Trio Apaches

The new season was opened by Trio Apaches, a young but already celebrated ensemble of piano, violin and cello.

First we heard a new work by Sally Beamish, commissioned by the Club with the generous support of The Kay Trust. ‘Dance the Beginning of the World’ sets out to represent creation and the emergence of life. The most substantial movement was the second, Swarm, envisioning the first stirrings of life, and this linked nicely to the third, Stampede, culminating in an ‘aerial view’ of stampeding herds. The fourth, Fabrications presents the emergence of Man as a peace-loving creature (despite the programme note), a gentle Hawaiian chant providing the main musical material. There was, in these movements, plenty of dance, but the musical content hardly matched the cosmic scale of the supposed meaning: this is on the whole gentle, unassuming music, easy to follow in its reliance on a few clearly stated ideas, often beautiful in its textures and hardly demanding for listeners or players. The most interesting moment came at the end, when we heard the brief opening movement (Dust) played backwards to represent the end of life. The performance was preceded by a pre-concert talk, chaired by Liz Johnson (one of our several resident Malvern composers), in which Beamish spoke with considerable charm and clarity.

The remainder of the concert comprised Saint-Saëns’ early Piano Trio No.1 and Brahms’ first Piano Trio, Op. 8. The Saint-Saëns moves entertainingly between the gentle melodiousness of the Palm Court and the passionate gestures of Brahms and even Rachmaninov. The Brahms (also an early work) is more consistent; but neither work can match the splendours of the best of the Piano Trio repertoire. From the musicians we heard wonderful dexterity from the pianist, a somewhat restrained classicism from the violinist and immense passion from the cellist.
Peter Johnson

Post Concert Presentation

Vice-President Ernie Kay was thrilled to meet Sally Beamish after this concert at a reception held in Malvern Theatres Circle Bar. His delight is evident in this photograph when the composer presented him with a copy of the score of her work, Dance the Beginning of the World, premièred earlier in the evening.
Sarah Musgrave