Concert Reviews 2018-19

2 May 2019 – Brodsky Quartet with Martin Roscoe

The last concert of the Club’s 116th Season on 2 May was undeniably a very special occasion, celebrating not just the 100th anniversary of the premières of the three late chamber works of Elgar, but also the farewell performance of Daniel Rowland as leader of the modern Brodsky Quartet. These two facts must surely be the reason the concert was so inspired. Concert Club audiences know this music well as each work has been performed here a number of times, but what made this concert extra special was having all three performed on the same evening, thus revealing each work to be an individual creation with its own distinct character – which is astonishing, knowing they were composed simultaneously.

All this would be academic, were it not that the performances were of an exceptional standard. Opening with the String Quartet, with all but the cellist standing, the ensemble’s impeccable tonal blend was immediately apparent, plus a superfine dynamic range achieved from an explosive forte to the most refined and exquisite pianissimo. The Violin Sonata which followed was given an exemplary reading with Daniel’s body language revealing his total commitment, control, singing line and easy virtuosity in perfect tandem with the partnership of Martin Roscoe’s authoritative rendering of the piano’s equally important part.

With the Quartet now seated the Piano Quintet cast its spell over a rapt audience hanging on every bar of this extraordinary masterpiece. What was most apparent was the mastery each of these musicians had in common with their rich, almost orchestral sound when required, set against such exquisite pianissimi that one could scarcely breathe in case some wonderful point was missed. Being in such complete technical command of every aspect of the music it was fascinating to note even the decisions as when to use more, or less, or no vibrato was apparent; and when each member of the ensemble had a solo or highlighted passage it was clear they all shared the same artistry and refinement. There were so many heart-stopping moments – the descending passage for viola near the close of the Quintet’s slow movement a case in point. There was rapturous applause at the end and we were given a delightful encore in an arrangement by the ensemble’s violist, Paul Cassidy, of a late Elgar piano solo, the gently nostalgic Adieu. What could have been more apt! – and what a fitting climax to what had already been an outstanding season.

The icing on the cake for this splendid evening was the presence of the BBC to record it for broadcasting on Radio 3 on 7 May when the thousands who tuned in were able to experience the outstanding artistry of these five musicians and learn of Malvern Concert Club – a living part of Elgar’s legacy.

© 2019 Joseph Brand

7 March 2019 Wihan Quartet

The Wihan Quartet, led by Leoš Čepickỷ, belongs to a distinguished line of Czech quartets, including the Talich and the Prazac, whose members are entirely Czech. Their tradition was perfectly illustrated by tonight’s encore, the finale of Dvořák’s American Quartet, in which an uninhibited joyfulness was achieved by fine discipline and a determination to avoid everything mechanical. Vivacity and discipline also characterised Haydn’s Quartet Op.54, No.1, driven throughout by the intelligent and communicative playing of their cellist, Michal Kaňka. The third movement, with its five-bar phrases and dancing Trio section, felt authentically Bohemian.

Beethoven’s last quartet, Op.135 in F major, was played in the more international later-20th style, with highly dramatised gestures at the start of the Finale and a very slow Lento Assai, as if it were notated in 3/4 or 3/2 rather than 6/8. But the Bohemian lilt was never far away, as in the opening dialogues of the first movement, or the closing variation of the Lento Assai, where the cellist’s subtly swaying rhythms created the perfect ground for the first violin’s beautifully caressed arabesques.

After the interval came Tchaikovsky’s huge 3rd Quartet, music that makes very different demands on its players: no bright, jolly rhythms here but a brooding intensity that requires concentrated, sustained tone and the power to give purpose to very long phrases – and in the dark key of E flat minor. A strong Slavic sympathy for this music was everywhere apparent, and at the technical level these musicians showed just how to sustain long phrases, to shape movements over periods of fifteen minutes and more, and especially how to sustain their audience’s attention, for there was never a dull moment. Overall this was a fine and memorable performance. Let’s hope the Wihan Quartet can visit us again, perhaps with some Janáček?

Professor Peter Johnson
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

17 February 2019 Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside: Schubert Schwanengesang and other Lieder

This Sunday afternoon concert was a rare event, well-nigh perfect performances of music that is rarely less than profound. Schubert’s Schwanengesang comprises an assortment of songs composed in the year of his death, presented as a song-cycle in its posthumous publication. Williams breaks the set into four groups by interleaving other, earlier Schubert Lieder; the last song, Der Taubenpost, formed a coda to the recital. However, this arrangement emphasised the stylistic and emotional coherence of the Schwanengesang collection, for the earlier songs, such as Liebhaber (‘love in all guises’), or the almost folksy Die Einsame (‘the hermit’), tended to be simpler in style and looser in structure. As Williams pointed out in his introduction, the economy and intensity of the last songs, such as the eerily ominous Die Stadt, the deceptively calm Am Meer, and the spectral, despairing Der Doppelganger, anticipates Wolf and Webern (whose early songs it would be wonderful to hear in Malvern): each is a miracle of intense expressive power achieved in miniature through rigorous control of musical resources.

Control also proved the key to the performances. The strong gestures were emphatic but never excessive, the quieter passages moving but without sentimentality. Burnside’s accompaniments were equally measured, a perfect balance between classical poise and Romantic expression. Both musicians derived their interpretations from deep study of the song texts, and in particular of their sonic properties: in Ihr Bild (‘her image’), the expressive colour of the penultimate phrase derives from the wan colour of the key word, ‘Tränen’ (tears), whilst the closing phrase was entirely matched the darker hue of its key word, ‘glauben’. Throughout the recital, Williams’s German diction was crystal clear: the sounds of the German language, he shows, are absolutely integral to this music.

The encore was Finzi’s Fear no more the heat of the sun, movingly presented as a memorial to the late Ernie Kay.

Professor Peter Johnson

24 January 2019 Tasmin Little, Martin Roscoe

This was the second of three concerts devoted to Beethoven’s ten sonatas ‘for piano and violin’.

Tonight, Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe presented three shorter, three-movement sonatas – No.2 in A major, No.4 in A minor, and No.8 in G major – and the more substantial Spring Sonata, Op.24, which they sensibly placed at the end of the programme. In the two earlier sonatas (Nos.2 and 4), the piano is definitely the dominant partner, and Roscoe responded with sensitivity and wit, sustaining the musical line whilst always alive to the twists and turns of Beethoven’s quixotic musical imagination. The tricky figurations in the Allegro vivace of the A major Sonata were perfectly balanced, more elegant than virtuosic, while the almost Schubertian melody of the second movement was warmly lyrical with no trace of indulgence. Little clearly enjoyed her role as accompanist, weaving her arpeggiated figures into the piano texture and performing her soloistic lines with gentle tones that never challenged the piano’s authority.

In the two later sonatas the piano and violin are more equal, and here I sometimes missed a more characterful style of violin performance. The opening of the Spring Sonata was lovely, but the dynamic contrasts later in the movement might have been more marked in the violin (they were very clear from the piano). Similarly, the theme of the slow movement was gorgeously played by both pianist and violinist, but the violin’s arabesque-like figures towards the end surely have something to say beyond mere decoration. But all in all these were delightful performances that were duly appreciated by the packed audience. The encore, the slow movement of Op.30 No.1, offered a glimpse of the musical treasures that await us next year.

Professor Peter Johnson

22 November 2018 James Gilchrist, Philip Dukes, Anna Tilbrook: Faith, Fate and the Futility of War

James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook make a duo of opposites, the one naturally declamatory in his singing, the other an instinctive lyricist. The programme opened with Purcell’s songs Evening Hymn and Lord, What is man, both presented with grand rhetorical gestures from Gilchrist, complemented by the gorgeous, flowing lines of Britten’s free-flowing realisations of Purcell’s accompaniments. There followed three short pieces by Rebecca Clarke, two quiet songs and a short Romance for Viola and Piano, which introduced Philip Dukes. This player conjures miracles with the nasal tones of his viola, and now presented Britten’s Lachrimae for solo viola in a performance that was simply stunning. Britten cuts to the quick with this piece, stripping away all that is inessential, whilst Dukes wondrously sustained its chains of musical thought and the weight of its expressive import, albeit mostly in pianissimo.

The Britten was followed by David Bednall’s extended song The Mower, setting texts by Andrew Marvell. The writing for viola and piano is effective, but the unashamed plundering of the English pastoral style of a century ago eventually proved restrictive (especially after the Britten), whilst the word-setting too often follows the speech-rhythms of the text, leading to repetitive musical rhythms. Gurney and Ireland (whom we were to hear in the second half) show just what can be achieved by imaginative variations of rhythm in the vocal line.

The second half began with a lovely performance of the second movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, arranged for viola, followed by four wartime songs by Ivor Gurney, and John Ireland’s edgier settings of Rupert Brooke poems. Finally we heard two rarely heard pieces by Vaughan Williams, the Romance for viola and piano and the Four Hymns with viola and piano, of 1914. Although the VW pieces struggled to match the levels of invention of Gurney and Ireland songs, the programme overall was imaginatively conceived and beautifully presented.

Professor Peter Johnson
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

24 October 2018 Danny Driver

This was the second visit in three years from Danny Driver, a pianist whose profound musicality shines through everything he plays. Tonight’s first half comprised two Bach Suites (the first Partita and the 5th French Suite), and the dark and complex Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor from the ‘48’. Each movement of the suites was characterised with elegant gestures, piquant and seemingly impromptu ornaments (especially in the repeats). His subtle rubato was a welcome change to the mechanical Bach we still sometimes hear. The Fugue, although in only three parts, illustrates Bach’s genius in combining formidable virtuosity of composition with deep expressivity. The three fugue subjects, each its own right thoughtfully expressive, are presented successively before being intricately combined. Driver held it all together with refined flexibility of rhythm and beautiful lyricism.

The second half comprised three works from the early 20th century, starting with Rachmaninov’s Étude Tableau in A minor from Op. 39. The contemplative ‘2-against-3’ rhythms nicely reflected those in Bach’s F sharp minor prelude, but the sudden eruption of cascading figuration in the central section opened the doors, for the first time in this programme, to the extravagant world of Romantic virtuosity. This was followed by all six movements of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, suitably played with refined, neoclassical understatement, but feeling rather weak after Rachmaninov’s passionate gestures – perhaps it should have started the second half. It was interesting to hear Medtner’s rarely played Ninth Sonata, a single-movement piece beginning innocently enough but gradually building to a passionate climax. But this too stood uncomfortably against the Rachmaninov, for its musical ideas lack the strength, individuality and integrity of Rachmaninov’s, so that the passion seemed contrived. Driver’s well-paced performance was nonetheless persuasive, and there was much to enjoy.

Professor Peter Johnson
Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

27th September 2018 The Heath Quartet

The new season opened in fine style with the celebrated Heath Quartet presenting works by Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Britten. The opening of Haydn’s Op.71, No. 2, a slow chorale, was movingly played in ‘period instrument’ style with no vibrato and pure intonation, but once the Allegro got underway, they adopted a modern, muscular style, especially the first violin (Oliver Heath) whose tone was sometimes too strident, even for this exuberant movement; but, in compensation, the lower strings brought to everything they played a glorious responsiveness.

Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet (Op.11, of 1871) is in effect an early work, with fascinating experiments in texture and rhythm and many hints of Russian folk styles. Russian folk music does not obey the square phrase patterns of popular Western music, and Tchaikovsky exploited the irregularities it offers. Even the otherwise saccharine theme of the Andante Cantabile is saved by its intriguing asymmetry of phrasing. Tonight’s musicians were fully alive to the nuances, subtlety, and sometimes wit of Tchaikovsky’s adventurous writing.

Britten composed his Second Quartet in 1945, soon after the triumphant premiere of Peter Grimes. It presents a composer brimming with new ideas and with the technical means to control them. The first two movements pay due homage to Shostakovich, Bartók and Tippett, but the voice is always Britten’s own, and the writing, especially in the Scherzo, strikingly virtuosic. But it is the third movement, an extended ‘Chacony’, that carries the main burden of this quartet. Nominally a tribute to Purcell, it also recalls Bach’s extended chaconnes, finding a huge variety of harmonic and rhythmic variations against the slow tread of the ground. About one-third in, the writing becomes extremely dissonant, perhaps a reflection on Britten’s recent experience of performing in war-torn Germany, but thereafter the tension is ever-so-gradually resolved. This music demands the utmost expressive control as well as virtuosity, and we were rewarded tonight with a stunning performance, a profound experience.

Professor Peter Johnson
Birmingham Conservatoire

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