30 September 2021 – The Aronowitz Piano Trio

  • Schubert Notturno in E flat D.897
  • Schumann Piano Trio No.2 in F, Op. 80
  • Schubert Piano Trio No.1 in B flat, D.898

It was a great pleasure to be in the Forum Theatre for the first full length concert after the almost two year interval in which such concerts were not possible, and to welcome the return of the Aronowitz Piano Trio.

Tom Poster, the trio’s excellent pianist, introduced the concert by describing it as a programme of three sunny pieces, and so they were. We had comprehensive and well written programme notes, as always. They explained that the Schubert Notturno is thought to have been written to form part of a longer work – most probably the Schubert D.898 Piano Trio which was the final work in the programme, because the opening theme of the Notturno is related to that of the trio’s first movement. However Tom, speaking later, questioned that, because the Notturno, with its mystical mood, has a different feel from the D.898 trio, which he described as ‘much more of this world’.

The sound world created by these three very fine performers was enhanced by the attractive acoustics of the Forum Theatre, which enabled us to hear the individual instruments with great clarity and in good balance. At the start of the Notturno, the piano played arpeggiated figures while the violin and cello played as one; from the start the exceptional unity in performance of the two Johnston brothers was clear. It really was as if a single instrument was playing. I loved the (to me) extraordinarily rich mellow sound of the cello; clearly both it and the violin were fine instruments, as was the Steinway piano.

Throughout the concert it was fascinating to hear the varied ways in which Schubert and Schumann exploited the forces of the piano trio. In passages like the one mentioned above the piano part contrasted with the strings, sometimes with the violin and cello playing in canon. At other times the three instruments played as equals, or two of them accompanied soloistic passages from the
other. We also enjoyed the other elements we expect in Schubert and Schumann’s music – the romantic melodies and harmonic progressions, the textural contrasts – pizzicati, staccati and legati – the dynamic contrasts – from pianissimo passages to emotive climaxes – and the fluid rubato.

We left the theatre filled with the sunniness we had been promised, and with great admiration for these three fine musicians.

Malcolm Macleod

21 October 2021 – Albion Quartet: Mozart, Waley-Cohen, Brahms

  • Mozart String Quartet No.18 in A, K.464
  • Freya Waley-Cohen Snapdragon
  • Brahms String quartet No.3 in B flat, op.67

The young Albion Quartet proved to be a popular choice on their first appearance together at Malvern. Alison Hunka, our honorary page turner, kindly offered to review the concert.

The audience at this concert was given an exhibition of the contrasting styles and moods that four very accomplished musicians can create. The programme opened with Mozart’s Quartet in A, K 464. Violinists, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Emma Parker, violist, Ann Beilby, and cellist, Nathaniel Boyd, played this work with a light gossamer effect. Their fingers and bows nimbly created an intricately woven Mozartian classical style. I would have liked more contrasted dynamics and more drama. I felt that the players had put the composer on a pedestal and were treating him rather reverentially but, as a member of the audience, one sensed immediately how many hours the players have spent together to achieve this unity.

The next work was a complete contrast. Snap Dragon was composed by Freya Waley-Cohen, sister of the quartet’s leader. She described the flower as being vibrantly coloured and looking like a dragon’s face. The music reflected the mischief and colours. The Albion players were so obviously enjoying playing this work, new to the audience, but so much a part of their repertoire.

After the interval the Brahms Quartet No.3 in B flat, Op.67 was introduced by viola player, Ann Beilby. We learned of the empathy Brahms had for the viola, how his music is always richly rewarding for violists to play. The performance to which we were then treated was passionate, strong and
convincing. The melodies soared, and the contrasting subtleties crept into our consciousness.

We were given an encore of the final movement of Antonin Dvórak’s American Quartet. They played this with the relaxed familiarity which comes from having spent time recording the work.

The evening was enjoyed by everyone in the Forum Theatre, both players and audience.

Alison Hunka

11 November 2021 – Takács Quartet

  • Mozart String Quartet No.15 in D minor, K.421
  • Dutilleux String Quartet Ainsi La Nuit
  • Smetana String Quartet No.1 in E minor From My Life

We were privileged to be able to hear the internationally famous Takács Quartet live in the Forum Theatre. They perform eighty concerts a year worldwide; they have won many awards and medals for their performances and CDs, and their technical command and virtuosity was evident throughout this evening. On their last visit, in 1998, the quartet included cellist and founder member András Fejér and violinist Edward Dusinberre. Harumi Rhodes joined as second violin in 2018, and Grammy-award-winning violist Richard O’Neill last year.

Of course, music in a minor key is not necessarily sad, but the first movement of Mozart’s D minor String Quartet conveys, to me, a strong sense of sadness or melancholy. The Takács Quartet’s interpretation was exceptionally soft, with romantic rubato that demonstrated their very fine ensemble playing. They continued to give us this very expressive interpretation through the stately second movement minuet and trio and the pastoral theme and variations of the final movement.

I had not heard Ainsi La Nuit by Dutilleux before. Its movements, played without breaks, were full of contrasts of every kind and included an extraordinary range of performing effects, densely packed, in which the members of the quartet showed their great individual and joint technical skills. Sometimes floating, sometimes in passages of brief turmoil, the music was exciting and this was a marvellous opportunity to hear it for the first time.

The quartet continued to demonstrate their versatility as they rounded off their programme with Smetana’s E minor String Quartet. As the programme explained, Smetana had been shattered by tinnitus followed by sudden deafness, and it was in that state that he composed this quartet, helping to regain confidence to continue composing. The music is romantic and joyful, and the Takács Quartet gave us a skilful and truly enjoyable performance. This concert was of the very highest standard. It was dedicated it to Peter Thomas, our former Secretary, who did so much for the Club.

Malcolm Macleod

20 January 2022 – Martin Roscoe & Fenella Humphreys

  • Beethoven Sonata for piano and violin No. 6 in A, Op.30, no.1
  • Beethoven Sonata for piano and violin No.3 in E flat, Op.12,
  • Beethoven Sonata for piano and violinNo.9 in A, Op. 47, Kreutzer

This was the last of a series of three concerts presenting all Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin. As Martin Roscoe explained, Tasmin Little played in the first two. The third was delayed first by an injury to Tasmin, and then by COVID and she then retired in 2020. Jennifer Pike had agreed to play, but unfortunately became ill and had not recovered, so at just two weeks’ notice Fenella Humphreys, who plays in Martin’s piano trio, agreed to play. No-one would have guessed – they played wonderfully expressively, in complete empathy and unanimity, hardly ever needing to look at each other and with beautiful lightness when that was (so often) called for.

In Beethoven’s day the piano would have been a much softer instrument, especially in the bass. The violin would have been a softer instrument too, and with gut strings, although it had begun to increase in range and volume as Beethoven was writing these sonatas. I assumed that the pitch would have been lower too, but Beethoven’s tuning fork from 1800 is actually a semitone higher than modern pitch, so who knows? Fenella’s violin was very sweet-toned but quieter than many modern violins. By contrast the piano was a full-scale modern concert grand, and Martin handled its substantial power with great skill and technique, ensuring (almost always) balance with the violin; only when there was strong bass in the piano part was its much greater strength hard to hide.

In all three sonatas the two instruments share in virtuosity, making the publication title of number 6 (“Three sonatas for the pianoforte with the accompaniment of a violin”) hard to explain. At times the texture is like a trio, with the piano left hand playing an accompanying role while the right hand and the violin alternate, imitate and duet with each other. At other times the music flows between the two hands at the piano, with the violin accompanying. These sonatas are all full of delightful variety. In sonatas 6 and 3 the second movements are marked Adagio “with great expressiveness” and they floated serenely, while the final movements displayed dextrous sparkle.

The Kreutzer sonata (originally dedicated to George Bridgetower, a British virtuoso violinist and composer of African descent, who premiered it) is a much more monumental work. From its huge sonata-form opening movement to its brilliant Presto finale it was gripping and absorbing. This was a wonderfully enjoyable performance from two extremely talented players.

Malcolm Macleod

24 March 2022 – The Carducci String Quartet with Peter Lale

Matt Denton violin, Michelle Fleming violin,
Eoin Schmidt-Martin viola, Emma Denton cello, with Peter Lale viola

  • Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet in E flat
  • Shostakovich String Quartet No.9 in E flat, Op.117
  • Mozart String Quintet (viola) No.4 in G, K.516

The Forum Theatre was packed for the Carducci String Quartet’s return to Malvern. The three pieces they chose presented stimulating and interesting contrasts and great listening pleasure. In Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat the plaintive opening in the relative minor developed into music full of expression and passion, with surging short passages. The beautifully blended sound of the quartet was immediately apparent. The Allegretto which followed, with running semiquavers throughout, reminded one of Felix Mendelssohn, but as Matt Denton pointed out later, Fanny was a powerful influence on Felix. The Romanze, built on a 2 note descending sighing motif, was filled with passionate contrasts – tumultuous moments alternating with sadder pianissimo passages. In the concluding Molto Vivace, in rocking triple time, flourishes of semiquavers flowed from one instrument to another in almost perpetual motion. There were dreamier moments too, but the movement retained its energy right to the end.

The Shostakovich String Quartet No.9 in E flat was a great contrast. Matt Denton spoke of its mixture of comedy and tragedy, of wild crazy anarchy and dark melancholy. Early in the first movement the brief atonality established its 20th Century musical world. Its five linked movements had a very episodic feel, full of contrasts of every kind – rhythmic, harmonic, textural and stylistic. There were many moments of dissonance, but at times a feel of Russian folk music. After this performance, exciting and gripping throughout, it was no surprise to read that the quartet have received a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for their performances of the complete Shostakovich quartets.

The quartet was joined by Peter Lale on second Viola for Mozart’s String Quintet No.4 in G Minor. Analyses of this work emphasise its three movements of intense pathos followed by an insouciant and carefree finale, but I found the whole work full of vitality and deeply satisfying. As Harold Bloom said, “I go back to the G Minor Quintet for comfort, sometimes when I am most desperate. The kind of consolation it affords [helps] me to bear myself in the despair of solitude.” This wonderful ensemble again showed their complete performing empathy throughout. Their smiles as they performed made their own enjoyment plain, an enjoyment which was shared by the whole audience.

Malcolm Macleod 2022

28th April 2022 – New London Chamber Ensemble: Wind Quintet with Michael Dussek

For the final concert of the season we were delighted to welcome back the New London Chamber Ensemble, with Meyrick Alexander deputising for their regular bassoonist and Michael Dussek on piano. Although the NLCE has a commitment to, and passion for, new music, this concert focussed on known favourites, beginning with Beethoven’s Quintet in E flat.

It started with the bold contrasts typical of Beethoven – forte wind chords alternating with gentle answering phrases. The piano introduced both subjects, answered each time by the clarinet, and as the movement developed all the instruments came to the fore individually and together. The lyrical second movement offered solos for all the wind instruments as well as lovely passages with piano accompaniment. The final rondo was in a jolly 6/8 with long beautifully played semiquaver runs on the piano and attractive intermingling of all the wind lines.

As Michael Dussek remarked, Neilsen’s Wind Quintet which followed has moods which, like the weather over Denmark’s flat scenery, “seem to come from afar”. He also mentioned the thematic connections with Neilsen’s 3rd Symphony. The music was often quite spare and exhibited Neilsen’s quirky harmonic language. A pastoral and lyrical first movement was followed by a light neo-classical minuet and a contrasting sonorous trio. The final movement opened with a plaintive introduction on the Cor Anglais followed by a chorale theme – a hymn tune that Nielsen had composed previously – and 11 variations, which were full of interest and gave all the instrumentalists a chance to shine in many different ways. The hymn tune chorale returned to bring the work to a settled close.

Francis Poulenc’s Flute Sonata is a great favourite, and was performed with great panache by Robert Manasse and Michael Dussek. It displays a wonderful range of flute timbres and techniques and is full of rapid changes of mood and gorgeous harmonies. It is in three movements – fast, slow and very fast indeed, ending with a flourish, and was a delight throughout.

Finally we heard Mozart’s Quintet in E flat, written for the same forces as Beethoven’s but 13 years earlier. It includes brilliant work for the piano, but all of the instruments play their full part. The programme note reminded us that in Mozart’s time wind instruments could only play relatively short phrases, so Mozart inventively passes melodic lines from one to another. Less extreme in its contrasts than Beethoven’s, this delightful Quintet brought the LCME’s fine concert to a very satisfying end.