Endellion String Quartet
30 June 2019
The sun was shining, the cakes were baked, the music lovers settled on their cushions and quiet descended in St Mary’s Church for the first of the 2019 ‘Concerts at Cratfield’.
The Endellion Quartet opened with Haydn Op.20 no.6, composed in 1772, and a delicate and calming work where the brief turns into a minor key were simple shadows rather than anything more disturbing. Would this work gain even more from a performance on period instruments which would have given perhaps greater clarity, agility, and finesse of sound?
This ongoing debate – period vs ‘ordinary’ instruments – has strong supporters in both camps and with this work I find myself leaning towards period-instrument performers such as the London Haydn Quartet.
If only we could all remember our friends and bid farewell in the way Puccini did with Crisantemi…
With the audience relaxed the Endellions launched into the heart of their programme – Janacek and Schubert.
Both works, Janacek’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ and Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, make huge emotional demands on the performers. Cellist David Waterman explained that Janacek’s work is not in a traditional classical form but is rather a series of ‘clips’, a mosaic rather than a continuous logical progression. So what holds it together? The literary references suggest suppressed, violent emotions which break out with disastrous results. A performance which can access this febrile state of mind will be deeply disturbing leaving one drained and unsettled. This is not a work to which one would turn for comfort or reassurance.
Schubert’s ‘Death the Maiden’ on the other hand takes us into those part of our minds and hearts which are beyond words and is everything we could ask of music. The last movement with its relentless drive over the undercurrent of the cello was quite wonderful, but the cost to the musicians was visible on the leader’s face. Thank you.
The Gould Piano Trio with Robert Plane
14 July 2019
The Greeks had two words for marking time — kronos and kairos. Kronos is the sequential, measurable time of clocks and calendars, moving from the determinate past toward the determined future. Kronos is numinous time; the time of the gods.
Forgive me, but I am much preoccupied by myth at the present and so I find myself wondering in which kind of time we were immersed whilst listening to the Gould Piano Trio’s extraordinary performance last Sunday afternoon. Certainly, the concerns of kronos time (or rather, the effects of its disruption) are particularly evident in Messiaen’s distinctive ‘non-retrogradable’ rhythms. Here, the coordination and precision displayed by the players in the rapid monodic movements and intricate contrapuntal passages in the Quartet for the End of Time were breathtakingly effected. Similarly, the measured steps of the courtly Baroque Spanish dance, the passacaglia, which shapes the third movement of the Ravel Trio, evoke kronos time as history, confirming how firmly Ravel’s style is rooted in the Classical French tradition. Here we are reminded too of how Ravel’s exquisite craftmanship, his clean lines, structural clarity and sense of proportion prompted Stravinsky to dub this composer “The most perfect of Swiss watchmakers”. And like a well-crafted clock whose intricate and mysterious workings are hidden behind its face, so the magical beauty of this performance of the Trio masked the huge technical and interpretive demands that the piece requires of its players.
Kairos time begins where kronos time ends: ‘And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer’ (Revelation of St John) . Kairos is a time of festival and fantasy; uncontrollable and uncontained. Kairos is circular, a boundless, gyring dance without beginning or end. And what a fantastic dance with the gods we were invited into through Robert Plane and the Gould Trio’s performance of the Messiaen – Apollonian in its beauty, expansiveness, crystalline clarity and precision; Dionysian in its driving ecstatic energy, swirling colours and abandoned celebration of zoe, the juice of life that runs through and energises all living things. In ancient Greece, to be possessed by either of these two gods was to be ‘enthused’ and enthused we most certainly were!
The Goulds’ inclusion of Huw Watkins’ Four Fables further demonstrated their discerning sensitivity not only to performing but to programming as well. Inspired by Schumann’s ‘Fairy tales’ for clarinet, violin, and piano we are, once again, in the realm of the ‘fabulous’, the timeless time of ‘Once upon a time…’. Musically too there are tantalising connections: strong tonal centres, shared motifs and melodies reflecting a thorough understanding of idiomatic instrumental writing and an awareness of the role of the ‘listener’ in the composer-performer-hearer relationship. Like Ravel and Messiaen, Watkins knows how to write in a modern musical language that is both individual and original whilst remaining accessible. We were as charmed children again, utterly enchanted by these gentle, lilting fairy tales.
In our busy, kronos-conditioned lives we so easily lose sight of the magical and the numinous: what a privilege then to be invited into kairos time and be so enchanted, as we most surely were, by the Gould’s spellbinding performance.
28 July 2019
The printed programme suggested that the Heath ‘are fast earning a reputation as one of the
most exciting present-day British chamber ensembles’. For my money, that reputation was
already secure on earlier visits to Cratfield – even before their last (so far, only) change of
personnel, when Sara Wolstenholme joined them as second violin when Cerys Jones chose to
have more time with her family in Wales. The programme at Cratfield this time was ‘safe’, in
the sense that the Ravel quartet and Beethoven’s Razumovsky No. 2 are centrally in the string
quartet repertoire, even on many people’s Desert Island Discs list – or at least would be included
in Private Passions on Radio 3, if the invitation from Michael Berkeley ever came.
The concert’s only wild card – hardly very wild – was the opening piece by Dobrinka
Tabakova, the Bulgarian-born composer now active in this country; she chaired the 2016 jury
for BBC Young Musician of the Year. Highland Pastorale, a recently composed short
homage to Scotland (but to folk idioms elsewhere too) would have frightened none of the less
adventurous members of the audience, playing with drone bass and open fifth textures to exhilarating
effect and showcasing St Mary’s famously immediate and intimate acoustic. As a
warm-up for the quartet and a palate-cleanser for the audience it could not have been better
(though it would be good to hear a longer piece from her in a future season – perhaps her
string trio Insight). For some years the quartet have stood to play (with cellist Chris Murray
seated on a specially designed hinged and raised box, preserving the sight lines to and from
the other players). Perhaps as a result, the strong communication between all of them adds
immediacy to their playing and enables at least those standing to move relative to each other:
the po-faced and immobile Borodin Quartet they are not. From an audience point of view – I
was in the chancel, very close to but technically behind the quartet – the visuals increase the
intensity of the whole experience of listening.
The key aspects for me of their performance of both the Ravel and the Beethoven were the
precision of their tuning and ensemble and their attack on the notes – not in the sense of inappropriate
sforzando or volume, but energetic engagement with what the music seemed to
require from moment to moment. If light and shade were another analogy, they did both
blazing light and gentle dappled shade, as appropriate. The magic moments in the Ravel
when two instruments play an octave apart were sensational; and overall they seemed perfectly
to catch the idiom of the writing, in ways critics often say a non-French quartet will
struggle to do. The spaces between the declamatory phrases of the opening movement of the
Beethoven were equally striking – giving the silence its full dramatic weight before moving
on to the new idea which followed, when the temptation to rush onwards must be very strong.
The slow movement seemed specially rapt and intense, as it should be; and the finale rollicked
as it should.
All in all, the concert was apt proof of how the best live performance of a work like the Ravel
or the Beethoven, which we may think we know completely and have ‘on tap’ at home via
CD or streaming, will reveal details we had not noticed before – at least if the playing is
compelling enough to make us listen well. It will also remind us of all the features which
make it reckoned as a great piece in the first place. For me, the Heath achieved this with
conviction and style: the concert was an undiluted success and underlined what a rare treat it
is to hear chamber music in such an intimate setting. Though there was in total only about an
hour and quarter’s music, no-one could have felt short-changed; and the traditionally generous
interval midway allowed concertgoers to be sociable over tea and cake – another of this
concert series’ special offerings.
29 July 2019