Concert reviews 2019

Guy Johnston, Cello and Sam Haywood, Piano Sunday 25 August 2019

It was a packed house on a glorious summer afternoon – Cratfield at its sunny best – to welcome Guy Johnston and Sam Haywood, playing a varied programme of Bach, Beethoven, Janacek and Grieg.

“Brilliant programming” was the way one of Cratfield’s regular and knowledgeable concert-goers described it. Other members of the audience echoed this view – “The Beethoven gave me such a feeling – wonderful” and “Not a piece I know at all – greatly enjoyable – fun”.

I didn’t know any of the pieces (aside from the encore), so I was able to listen with a completely fresh ear and no preconceived ideas of how any of the pieces should be played. I confess – and music aficionados among you will no doubt correct me if I’m wrong – I did think I heard shades of the Grieg Piano Concerto in A at the end of the first movement of the cello sonata.

Here I have to declare my love of Baroque. For me the Bach was an uplifting way to start – music to wash over and around me, soothe the soul and bring joy – though I appreciate not everyone feels like that about it!  As it happens, I have spent the days around the Cratfield concert attending masterclasses at Snape, watching Phillipe Herreweghe working with young talented musicians preparing for a Bach concert on Friday as part of the Snape Proms. He keeps reminding them that all Bach is a dance and I felt that was exactly what we experienced with Sonata No. 2.

Guy and Sam played with passion and commitment – no less, I imagine, than if they were in one of the major concert halls in the world with which they are familiar.  I felt that they had a very good rapport with each other and with the audience, and that they were thoroughly enjoying their music-making. Though one couple I spoke to felt that the cello was overpowered by the piano at times, the majority of the audience was only positive. Comments such as “I liked that the performers seemed to be enjoying playing/performing, rather than just playing the notes”, “playing with gusto and enjoyment” and “sense of pleasure in music making” reflected this. There was also much praise for their musicianship – “fantastic musicians” was one person’s view.  Another couple said “We play the Beethoven, but this is a bit different – we’re in awe really”. And others liked the combination of instruments – “I’m enjoying it very much – it’s not a combination of instruments you see very often”.

There were also many appreciative comments about the Steinway baby grand piano – “lovely piano – rich tone”, though there were several mentions of the rather noisy mechanism of the sustaining pedal.

I always reflect how lucky we are to have at Cratfield performers of such high quality and international experience – this week’s musicians being no exception. This is thanks to the excellent connections of the Cratfield Committee, particularly the Concert Manager. And while programme notes are always a tricky matter for me – I don’t know enough about music to understand the technical terms – I found them very helpful.  It was particularly good to have the story of the little-known Janacek Pohadka.

The prolonged applause and cheers and ‘bravos’ from the audience at the end of the concert – not a frequent occurrence at Cratfield – indicated how much the audience had enjoyed the afternoon. And we were treated to a short, but delightful encore – The Swan from ‘Carnival of the Animals’ (Saint-Saens).  Encores are rarely played at Cratfield, but this one was welcomed and seemed to be very much enjoyed by everyone.  For me, the best part of the encore was that Guy played without his score – the music stand was put to one side.  And he was completely wrapped up in the music – playing with his eyes closed. For me, there’s something special about musicians performing without a score – it somehow makes their communication with me – the audience – more intimate. And while I’m not sure about performers closing their eyes, as that can take away from the closeness of the connection between them and the audience, in this case it felt entirely appropriate.

Gill Bracey August 2019

Sounds Baroque 11 August 2019

The sun shone, David Mintz, chairman of Concerts at Cratfield stood in his usual spot at the door to welcome arrivals, familiar and new, to today’s concert and his ever-helpful

programme (£1) told us that ‘Sounds Baroque’ were giving a selection of pieces today to demonstrate what ‘Baroque’ sounds like (Corelli, Scarlatti, Gemiani, Telemann) and to introduce pieces by Stephen Dodgson, British composer 1924-2013. ‘Sounds Baroque’ are four charming and polished performers, Julian on the harpsichord, Sophie and Henrietta on violins and Henrik on cello, sharing knowledge about the music and instruments as they went (violin bows used to curve like a bow and arrow, now curve the other way to give the volume and sustained note required by modern music and instruments- ahah!).

Cake and a good cup of tea at half time gave us the extra energy to attend to the second half finishing with Vivaldi, the remaining home-made cake on sale at the end to take home and enjoy.

A delightful afternoon in a perfect country setting,

Anne Hyatt King

Heath Quartet, 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.

Philip Britton

29 July 2019

REVIEW OF 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 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 and the Maiden’ on the other hand takes us into those parts 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.

Candy Blackham

The Gould Piano Trio with Robert Plane

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.

Victor Scott