Concert Reviews 2019-20

This season was disrupted in quite a few ways with concerts cancelled to weather and an injury to a performer before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Despite this, concert-goers enjoyed some splendid performances. See the full list of actual and planned concerts.

28 November 2019 – Pavel Kolesnikov: Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy, Bartók

This wonderful recital began with a surprise: Chopin’s exquisite posthumous waltz in A minor, (because the pianist loves it!), preceding the Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp minor and setting the tone for a musical journey from darkness to light, or perhaps from moonlight to a radiant dawn. The audience were immediately drawn in to this fascinating, non-chronological programme, and remained spellbound throughout. There were no breaks for applause or readjustment, as the seamless pattern took shape, almost organically. As a Chopin sequence ended with the well-known prelude in D flat major, so it then segued in to the opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata in C sharp minor, harmonically apposite and played with no sentimentality but with a gentle awareness of its tragic intensity. A performance of great refinement.

The second half of the concert began with some lesser known works, still referring to the darker hours: Schumann’s Nachtstück no.1, Debussy’s brilliant and technically demanding ‘Feux d’artifice‘, and Bartók’s beautiful, if fragmented, ‘The Night’s Music‘ from his ‘Out of Doors‘ suite. This led us to the culmination of the journey from darkness into daylight, with the second Beethoven sonata, the Waldstein. But Pavel had explained to us that in some European countries this is known as the Aurora sonata – literally ‘the dawn’, and now the exuberance and energy of the music seemed to take flight as Kolesnikov’s extraordinary and apparently effortless skill and musicianship led us to what can only be described as a sublime final rondo. After tumultuous applause we were brought back to earth, and the now glorious daylight, with another stroke of genius: Rameau’s charming little piece, ‘L’appel des oiseaux‘ as an encore. Not only a recital, but a deeply satisfying musical experience. Malvern is fortunate indeed to have access to such world class music making.’

Linda Jennings
MCC Vice President

31 October 2019 – Pavel Haas Quartet: Ľubica Čekovská, Schulhoff, Smetana, Janáček

The Pavel Haas Quartet is a leader among contemporary quartets. Its members, all trained in Prague, bring a style and consistency of musicianship reminiscent of the earlier Prague and Smetana quartets, marked by a passionate commitment to the music and a unique sense of flow and rubato – the subtly shifting rhythms of Bohemian dance are never far away.

Their programme began with a recently composed piece, The Midsummer Quartet by the Slovak composer L’ubica Čekovská, in which the four instruments embody the characters of the Athenians in Shakespeare’s Dream. The clearest characterisation was given to the cello, a stomping ostinato that whisked us along to a dreamlike central section before returning at the end. The playing, from the first note, was utterly engaging. Then came a rarely-heard quartet from the Czech-born composer Erwin Schulhoff. Like Pavel Haas, Schulhoff was to be a victim of Nazi genocide but here, in the mid1920s, he was enjoying the new-found lightness of Neo-Classicism, his score often invoking the folksy violin/bass duos in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. The piece is interestingly structured, with three lighthearted movements preceding a quiet, expressionistic finale strongly recalling the earlier quartets of Schulhoff’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. This quartet deserves to be better known, especially when it is performed with such commitment and understanding.

The first half of the programme ended with Smetana’s Quartet in D minor, a late piece that by no means lacks passion, yet is curiously fragmented, as if Smetana were struggling to escape from the late-Romantic obsession with long melodic lines. Here the quartet perhaps overplayed some of the more passionate moments, but no such problems arose in the final piece of the programme, Leoš Janáček’s even more intense and even more fragmented Initimate Letters. Each of the four movements comprises a collage of seemingly unrelated fragments, each powerful in its own right and always etched with Janáček’s own characteristic angularity of line and love of dissonance. The musicians clearly understand this work with an intimacy rarely shown by other ensembles, finding just the right style and expressive weight for each phrase. The cellist, playing from memory, was clearly in charge, directing proceedings with an unerring sense of shape and timing. Although a thoroughly modernist work, the audience loved it.

This was a truly exceptional concert, a fascinating programme performed at the very highest level of musicianship.

Peter Johnson

26 September 2019 – Frith Piano Quartet with John Tattersdill (double bass)

The new season opened in fine form with the Frith Piano Quartet (piano, violin, viola and cello), with the support of John Tattersdill’s double bass for two of the three pieces. The first item was Louise Farrenc’s Piano Quintet No.1 in A minor, of 1839, a rarity nowadays but popular in its day. It was an exciting concert-opener, featuring virtuosic piano writing and plenty of imaginative interplay between violin, viola and cello. Farrenc’s writing was close to her models (mainly Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn), but delightful in its variety. The musicians clearly understood their respective roles, the firm, clear voice from the Double Bass often contrasted with the subtle interchanges between violin, viola and cello. Benjamin Frith, the pianist for the evening, clearly enjoyed the challenge of Farrenc’s sometimes ferocious virtuosity, the only problem being that in the higher register the piano tended to sound brittle, a fault perhaps of the piano rather than the pianist. The quieter playing was lovely.

The Farrenc was followed by another French piece, Fauré’s first Piano Quartet Op.15, dating from 1877. Fauré’s composing style shuns the obvious or the merely declamatory, yet remains profoundly expressive, the slow movement in particular exploiting the power of the understatement – those simple yet uncanny passages for unison strings still linger in the ear. Then came Schubert’s ever-green Trout Quintet, a piece brimming with joie de vivre. But this performance was no romp, but managed a subtle balance between lightness and forcefulness, expression and rhetoric. Throughout the programme the ensemble held the attention of its audience by playing to and for each other with the utmost concentration. The result was a wonderfully engaging concert. I hope we will have further opportunities to hear this fine ensemble in Malvern.

Peter Johnson

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