Sunday 9 September 2018
The Carducci String Quartet and Craig Ogden guitar
Mendelssohn, Boccherini, Dowland, Albéniz, Piazzolla
This was the last concert of the 2018 season, bringing with it a warm sunny afternoon and a capacity audience (hardly any need to mention the spread of delicious home-made cakes on the tea table in the interval, which as a result ran longer than usual). The Carducci have a long history at Cratfield, as well as offering a strikingly intense sequence of all the Shostakovich quartets in Aldeburgh three years ago. They have a knack of being able to perform both ‘serious’ music from the string quartet tradition and less mainstream works to equal effect; and always look as if they enjoy playing everything on a programme.
The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s final quartet, the F minor memorial to his late sister Fanny and almost the last work he completed. The Carducci gave it all the passion and sadness it deserved, so it was quite a change of gear for Craig Ogden then to join them for a guitar quintet by Boccherini: in almost every respect deeply conventional of its period and in a major key, save for the transition to the D minor fandango with which it ends. This is quite a showstopper and manages that difficult feat of working out how to slow down to the finish (something Boccherini’s contemporary Antonio Soler could not manage in his equally famous fandango for the keyboard, which just stops rather than actually ending). The audience was clearly delighted, the plucked notes of the guitar nestling sweetly inside the texture of the four strings.
Exchanging the programming conventions of ‘the heavy second-half’ (Death and the Maiden, or a late Beethoven quartet, perhaps) for a lighter but less well-known combination of pieces, Craig Ogden next presented Lachrimae (‘Flow my tears’) by Dowland – a sudden window into a world of stately and gentle Tudor dance forms – and Sevilla from the Suite Espagnole by Albéniz. In a way, this was an odd but interestingly contrasted pair of solo pieces, showing two parts of the guitar’s ancestry: the lute in northern Europe and the flat-backed vihuela for the music of Iberia. Both were later overtaken by what we now know as the concert (or ‘baroque’) guitar, whose tuning – as Craig entertainingly explained while preparing for the Albéniz – can vary to match the piece but is markedly different from that of its plucked predecessors, just as the violin is from the viol.
The final collection of pieces brought the Carducci back to join the guitar for Astor Piazzolla’s ‘Tango Sensations’. The story goes that, when Piazzolla came to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the 1950s, hoping to leave his already deep experience of tango behind and to become a more conventional classical composer, Boulanger encouraged him instead not to move away from his Argentinian roots: he followed the advice. As with the fandango in the first half of the concert, pieces based on a dance form (especially the same dance form) cannot easily escape from an unvarying shape and rhythm; but the variety in speeds and textures of these five late pieces held our attention. They are portraits of individual moods (and perhaps places too – for me, they conjured up Buenos Aires at night more than once). It is no disrespect (but obvious) to say that they would accompany inventive choreography superbly well.
10 September 2018
Sunday 26 September 2018
Kathryn Stott piano
Bach, Grieg, Chopin, Wagner, Ginastera, Strauss, Villa-Lobos
‘Stunning’, ‘virtuosic’, ‘intricate’, ‘with an intimate touch’, ‘crackingly good’ and ‘electrifying’, ‘the best concert I’ve ever been to’, ‘I learnt lots of things about piano playing that I didn’t know’. These were just some of the words that members of the audience used to describe Kathryn Stott’s recital. On a cold, wet and windy Sunday in August, Kathryn Stott brought warmth and light to the Cratfield audience with a recital to celebrate her soon to be 60th birthday. It was good to see so many regulars for what constituted a rather different kind of concert for Cratfield. It was a real coup to have secured Kathryn Stott to play for us – she is an internationally renowned performer and teacher.
The programme was an eclectic mix of some of Kathryn Stott’s favourite pieces, all based on dance or song, that had particular meaning or significance for her. The range from Bach, to Strauss, to Lecuona, and including some pieces that are not part of the traditionally ‘classical’ repertoire was well received by the vast majority of the audience. Many people mentioned it when I spoke to them at the interval and after the concert. Her choice of piano was interesting – a concert grand – which filled the church with vibrant sound. For some of the audience it was too much, but for the majority of people I spoke to it had worked brilliantly well.
The opening piece, J S Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, arranged by Myra Hess, clearly set the scene for what was to come. I suspect that every member of the audience has heard this played hundreds of times by different performers, but for me, I had never heard it delivered with such sensitivity and feeling. I was struck by the subtlety and intricacy of the playing, with changes in tempo that made me listen properly, rather than just allowing the sound to wash over me. It clearly didn’t go down well with one member of the audience who was frantically beating time, willing Kathryn Stott to play faster and at a constant tempo, but that is the nature of music, I suppose. We all have our view of how pieces should sound. It can be quite a challenge to go to a concert with a completely open mind, prepared to listen to different interpretations and not judge on the basis of preconceived ideas.
Kathryn Stott engaged with the audience, not only with her playing, but with the narrative she added to take us through the programme. She clearly recognised the musical knowledge of the audience, just saying a few words here and there about why she had chosen the pieces. It may have irked some people, but not me. I found it enlightening and helpful. We were treated to an encore of one of Chopin’s best known nocturnes. In it, Kathryn Stott ended the concert as she had begun – really making us listen and appreciate both the creativity of the composer and the versatility of sound that can be elicited from the piano by the best of pianists.
2 September 2018
Sunday 12 August 2018
Maxwell String Quartet
Haydn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky
There was never a dull moment in Sunday’s exciting performance by the Maxwell String Quartet, a young group of four close (and uniformly hirsute) friends who, just last year, won first prize at the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition. Their approach is refreshingly – but occasionally unnervingly – different. As the viola player, Elliott Perks, explained to the Cratfield audience after the interval, the group takes certain inspiration from its background in Scottish folk music, which, as a group, the members regularly play and compose together. Indeed, their upcoming debut CD features Haydn string quartets alongside the quartet’s own arrangements of Scottish folk music. Perks pointed out to us that exploring links between folk music and the classical works they perform brings something new to both musical traditions, as well as a refreshing and infectious excitement to their performance.
This was particularly apparent in their second half performances of Haydn’s string quartet Op. 71 in E flat major no.3 and Tchaikovsky’s string quartet no.1 Op.11 in D major. In the Haydn, there was a freshness and a lightness in the delivery, notably in the first and finale vivace movements, in contrast perhaps to some recordings of the work which have arguably been delivered with a touch too much formality. As the group have said before, “people sometimes overcomplicate [Haydn’s] music and lose the vitality”.
The folky themes in Tchaikovsky’s string quartet No.1 were also celebrated with good effect by the quartet. The famous (and regularly reworked) andante cantabile, based on a folk song that Tchaikovsky apparently heard sung by a Ukrainian gardener, was heart wrenchingly executed with a sweet yet sensitive rendition by the first violin. More dynamic contrast could have been applied, but the raw appeal of the rendition easily won over the audience. Was the quartet’s fresh approach delivered at the cost of technical perfection? Occasionally perhaps, in the first half, but far more compelling to the listener was the undaunted enthusiasm, camaraderie and sheer exhilaration of this exciting young quartet.
17 August 2018
Sunday 29 July 2018
Allegri String Quartet
Mozart, Alec Roth, Beethoven
A capacity audience gathered at St Mary’s Church, Cratfield, to hear the Allegri Quartet in a challenging programme – Mozart K464, Quartet no.3 by Alec Roth, and the first of Beethoven’s last quartets, Op.127. We, audience and players, were embarking on what is in many ways a strange experience – the audience sits in silence, listening to sounds made by four players who are attempting to bring to life marks on paper. These marks were ways of conveying the thoughts and feelings of composers who might be long-dead. How were the players to know what the composer meant? And how were they to convey those thoughts and feelings, developed in another historical time, to the audience? How was someone in the audience to interpret the sounds? Each participant is shaped by their own cultural background, and I wondered how one might introduce someone to this experience.
It is customary to write programme notes for concerts and historical information sets the music in context – it is interesting to know that Mozart wrote K464 in 1785, a generation after JS Bach died, and a few years before the great changes wrought by the French Revolution, but does a brief explanation of sonata form explain Mozart’s thoughts or feelings? The Quartet employs Bach’s contrapuntal techniques – why? Were they a means of conveying complexities and tensions, or had Mozart simply not been ‘liberated’ by the Revolution? What about the fleeting but disturbing changes from major to minor, and the ‘drum beat’ in the variations which hurried by too quickly for my taste? If the work had been a photograph it would perhaps have benefited from post-processing with changes to contrast, clarity, and sharpening. But what would Mozart have thought? And was he trying to convey any feelings at all?
The audience reacted well to the Quartet by Alec Roth, described as ‘pleasant’ by Rafael Todes. I personally heard a work with much more depth and found yearning and sadness, a mood which I felt continued through the tango and dance which I found neither seductive nor fun-loving, but darker and more relentless. It was a work which engaged the performers and touched the audience and is to be recommended for repeat listening.
With Beethoven’s op.127 I would advise the newcomer to note the historical context of the music – two generations after Mozart’s quartet, beyond the French Revolution, after the defeat of Napoleon – and then close his or her eyes and let the music into their being. Beethoven at the time of writing op.127 was fifty-five years old and within two years of his death. He had been profoundly deaf for nearly twenty years, hearing only in the isolation of his own mind. He was confident of his musical abilities, willing to ‘rhyme to see myself. To set the darkness echoing’, to use the words of Seamus Heaney, using whatever means necessary. The noble opening was to lead us increasingly into a private world, said Rafael Todes. Beethoven finds places of quietness deep inside one’s heart and mind, retreating into a bareness of soul which can be painful – Op.127 can leave the listener enriched and strengthened, even comforted, but on this occasion I felt a good performance was not one which was searching. Live music is always rewarding and thought-provoking and this concert was no exception, reminding us of the extraordinary complexity of communicating through music. I heartily recommend that you come to the remainder of the 2018 concert season at St Mary’s Church, Cratfield.
5 August 2018
Sunday 15 July 2018
Jack Liebeck violin and Katya Apekisheva piano
Debussy, Fauré, Messiaen, Frank
It says a great deal for the enthusiasm and loyalty of the Cratfield audience that, despite the competing attractions on TV of the World Cup Final and the Wimbledon Men’s Final, the church was almost full for this recital (though perhaps the absence of England from the former and of Andy Murray from the latter was a factor). Those who attended were rewarded by a truly superb afternoon of music-making. We last heard this duo in 2014; they were outstanding then and are even more so now, in technique and musical sensitivity but even more in their obvious rapport. They play as one and the results are performances, even of such familiar works as made up the bulk of their programme on this occasion, which are revelatory.
The three main works were all among the most popular in the whole violin/piano repertoire. Works become as popular and frequently played as these for good reason – they are interesting, beautiful and hugely enjoyable to play and listen to. The first was Debussy’s Sonata in G minor, a very late work written in the year before his death, Elusive and beautiful, it never fails to cast a powerful spell over its audience, as it certainly did on this occasion. The second work was Fauré’s first violin sonata in A major. Although very popular, as it happens it was less familiar to me than the other two main works in the programme. Indeed, for some reason I had never heard it in a ‘live’ concert before but am very glad to have done so now. Written in the composer’s mid-thirties it demonstrates his increasing confidence in his ability as a composer of music typical of its late romantic period and with many touches typical of its composer. I could not have had a better introduction to it ‘in the flesh’ so to speak than I had on this occasion and I was left anxious to hear it again, preferably with the same performers.
After the interval we heard the one work certainly completely unknown to me and probably to the majority of the audience, a theme and five variations by Olivier Messiaen. Written when he was in his early twenties, it already shows signs of the remarkable originality which characterises his later and better-known works. It seemed to me to be a very attractive work which I would like to hear again, if only to counterbalance the overwhelming impact of later works such as Turangalila.
Finally we had perhaps the most popular of all works for violin and piano, César Franck’s Sonata in A major. Unlike the Fauré, this is a work I have heard live many times, quite possibly nearing three figures, and which I love dearly, but I cannot remember a performance which was so full of energy, passion and sheer musicianship on the part of both players. As if that was not enough, the recital ended with an encore, an arrangement of the Meditation from Massenet’s opera Thaïs played with just the right degree of sweetness without the cloying which the piece can so often decline into in lesser hands.. Jack and Katya – come back again soon!
19 July 2018
Sunday 1 July 2018
Leonore Piano Trio
Lalo, David Matthews, Suk, Beethoven
This was the first of the season’s Cratfield Concerts, blessed by blue skies and brilliant sunshine. The church was not completely full but the audience were obviously enjoying themselves and a large number of CDs were purchased after the concert to the delight of the Trio. The concert itself was a very Cratfield experience, with rarely heard music, a new composition, and finishing with a stormy Beethoven Trio. Added to all this were punctuations from Merlin engines at a nearby air display!
The Leonore Trio was playing here for the first time, although Gemma the cellist had been here some years ago. We first heard a rather SchumannesqueTrio by Edouard Lalo, which was rich and warm, followed by a piece by David Matthews with an elegiac adagio dedicated to his late companion. The last movement was rather different and somewhat challenging, but the whole sonata form Trio was very rewarding. We were also lucky enough to have David with us to introduce his work in person.
After the interval (the usual mouthwatering array of cakes from the ladies of the Church) there was a shorter work by Josef Suk, which was a moving elegy to the writer Julius Zeyer. The concert finished with a brilliant early Beethoven Trio harking back to earlier influences and ending with a formidable last presto. I’m sure we all hope to see the Leonore back at Cratfield, they were certainly a fine start to a promising new season.
3 July 2018