Concert review: Callino Quartet with Anna Dennis soprano and Alasdair Beatson piano, 11 September 2016
There was something both fitting and unusual about this final concert in another memorable season at Cratfield – while hardly flag-waving repertoire, as is usually the case in season/festival finales, it was highly apt in a venue where, more than most others, you can appreciate the rise and fall of summer, the progress and completion of the harvest, and the turn towards autumn. Even the sun beaming down on us as we left the church served to highlight the longer shadows than of eight weeks ago. This adventurous, rare and beautifully played programme was certainly autumnal in character – dark, restless, changing, uneasy, seeking new expressions and new sounds.
The performers rose splendidly to these tremendous challenges. The Callino Quartet, now in their seventeenth year, seem to communicate almost without looking at each other; so refreshing – a relief even – from the gushy gestures and smiley faces through which so many chamber musicians seek to interact. The contrapuntal textures and phrases of the Webern Langsamer Satz were beautifully shaped, never straining in their length and complexity. If I say the interpretation was more on the reserved and objective side, that does not imply any lack of commitment – more that they were happy to let the music speak for itself – which, of course, it did. Most impressive was the balance between the long shapes and the motives and gestures which combine to make them, it being all too common to hear one at the expense of the other.
They were joined by Anna Dennis for the daring Schoenberg String quartet no 2. This is indeed dark music, written from a dark place. Anna Dennis’ pitch in this fiendishly difficult part was impeccable throughout, her tone resonant and warm, never harsh. But I would have liked to hear more extremes, more character, from everyone. Again, one admired the sincerity and structure of the performance, but it was perhaps a little too sincere – never really ecstatic, desperate, or slightly unhinged.
Another quintet in the second half, Brahms Piano quintet in F minor, with the mercurial Alasdair Beatson, a man whose chameleonic flexibility as a pianist is utterly remarkable. The whole performance had a rather terrifying intensity to it, with a raft of sudden new colours and warmth to the quartet’s sound. I found even the more reflective moments also rather intense – occasionally Alasdair sits back in magisterial fashion and lets the sound ring out, rather than seeming to grapple and wrestle with it, and I would like to see him do this more, even in a predominantly restless piece such as this. But what a performance this was – the structure of the music was completely natural, the big sonorities managed and orchestrated as if by seasoned conductor, and the articulation clear and never fussy. Everything spoke. This was real Quintet playing, not Quartet plus one: sincere, committed, compelling – and, although autumnal and dark, truly uplifting and inspiring.
16 September 2016
Concert review: Charles Owen piano, 28 August 2016
This fifth concert in the Concerts at Cratfield 2016 season featured four diverse works, each representing a different and developing strand in the keyboard tradition and each new to Cratfield.
The first, perhaps the oddball of the repertoire (but to me the gem), was the complex JS Bach, English suite no 3 in G minor BWV 808. The assured opening Prelude was meticulously rendered in strict meter, yet textured with subtle dynamic contrast to the extent pace and style permitted. This was followed by an allemande and courante, but it was the stately sarabande that particularly impressed, with its expressive nature and complexity delivered with dextrous assurance. Next the first gavotte framed in repetition a second gavotte or musette, the second title taken from the French bagpipe, with its single drone continuing throughout. The concluding gigue opened with a lively subject in the upper part, imitated and elaborated in the second part, with the expected reversal of entry order and inversion in the second section of the dance. An exciting performance, whetting the appetite for Owen’s shortly to be released new recording of Bach’s six keyboard Partitas.
Frederic Chopin, Nocturnes, op 9 and op 15 could not have presented a greater contrast. One audience member was overheard to query whether they felt ‘out of place’ in the day’s programme, given their popular secular familiarity – in the case of Op. 9 no 2, across movie screens and video games. Of course, their early Romantic self-absorption is a matter of taste, but the freshness of Owen’s interpretation, through subtlety and sensitivity of touch, lent exciting novelty to the familiar.
Next, after the interval, came Franz Liszt, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, the third piece in the collection Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses. Though straightforward in its three-part structure, in language this is a largely rich, voluptuously textured piece. However, it was delivered without excess, seemingly almost effortlessly, thereby transmitting something of the divine peace Liszt is trying to convey, particularly in the gentle and beautiful coda.
The final work was the technically demanding suite Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel. Owen’s spellbinding, glassy performance of Ondine was lent additional atmosphere by the heavens opening as the water nymph attempted to seduce observers to the depths of her watery lake. As an intensely atmospheric Le Gibet opened, the rain suddenly ceased, a watery sunlight slanting through the clerestory as if lighting the piece’s mournful desert landscape with its hanging corpse, the haunting tolling bell persisting as a backdrop. Then the extraordinary, nightmarish Scarbo, extremely challenging both to performer – yet effortlessly delivered by Owen – and at times to the audience, rendered with suitable menace. Left breathless, the Cratfield audience applauded another exceptional performance by Charles Owen.
13 September 2016
Concert review: André Trio, 14 August 2016
I always get a little anxious about writing reviews. Not least is the problem of attempting to present something in a creative and engaging way, and it occurs to me that it mildly echoes the challenge faced by all musicians performing ‘core repertoire’ as part of their programmes: how to say something fresh, interesting and insightful yet still stay true to the composer’s intentions, the musical ‘brief’ presented in the score. And so, with the André Trio offering two major ‘standards’ of the piano trio repertoire in their concert at Cratfield, at least a part of any review must address this issue.
I have just watched some of the highlights of the Olympic Games in Rio. I’m not a great fan of sport (although my wife keeps reminding me that I’m in denial about that) but I am hugely enthusiastic about and greatly admire all who, in pursuit of their passions and interests, develop their skills and talents with singular focus and intensity. And perhaps this is where music and sport have much in common: there is something life-affirming, joyful and celebratory in both which the ancient Greeks recognised when the Games were instituted. Indeed, music was a major feature of the Games from the start (apparently the pentathlon and long jump were accompanied by music) and musical contests were the major focus of the Pythian Games dedicated to Apollo, God of the Arts.
So perhaps, if you will allow a little self-indulgence, there may some analogies that can be drawn between the Games and the André Trio’s performance. Certainly the choice of repertoire was ‘Olympian’ in its musical demands; the trio rose to those demands admirably, sustaining our rapt engagement and excited attention throughout the whole 90-minute programme. Here was energetic, muscular, athletic, honed and toned playing, unwavering in its forward drive and sense of direction and intent. Even when we reached the slow movement of the Mendelssohn there was no temptation to wallow in its ‘sticky’ sweetness, an over-indulgence which mars many performances; instead, just enough refined sugar to sustain us to the end of that particular musical marathon.
What then of the ‘set routines’, the ‘required elements’ and how were those given that something special that takes a performance to a different level? I suppose that we all have our favourite version or versions of core repertoire such as the Archduke or the Mendelssohn trios. It may be the one we first heard or grew up with or even chose from Radio Three’s ‘Building a Library’ series and it becomes the interpretation by which we tend to measure all other performances; the standard against which others are, both consciously and unconsciously, judged. And this is the challenge for the musician: to ‘convince’ us of the integrity of their interpretation: to win us over to a new way of seeing the familiar, of awakening us to new possibilities.
There was a real sense of conviction in the André Trio’s performances, a sense of meticulous attention to preparation and to the shifting roles each had to play in three very different musical dramas which gave their interpretations great integrity in all three works. It would have been difficult not to be won over by their musical arguments in all three works.
This reminds us, also, that all chamber music is based on ‘teamwork’, a democracy of shared ideas and inspirations in rehearsal that will shape and govern the outcome, whilst still remaining flexible enough to allow individual spontaneity and sudden insight and respond accordingly in performance. This latter requires extraordinary trust in one’s ‘team mates’, an almost intuitive understanding, and there was much evidence of an intense musical bond amongst these young musicians which we could all enjoy, appreciate and applaud.
If I could stretch the Olympian theme further, we might see the whole programme as something of a Triathlon; three very different musical styles, each with their own particular demands, and the André Trio showed themselves technically and intellectually prepared to meet the musical challenges of Beethoven, Fauré and Mendelssohn in their perfectly paced programme.
In short, the André Trio certainly ‘brought home gold’ in a precious and glittering performance. I hope that Apollo was honoured; we, as audience, most certainly were.
27 July 2016
Concert review: Quartetto Rossi, 31 July 2016
A ‘pop-up’ quartet, when it has been chosen as thoughtfully as this, can play very well and somehow with an extra charge. When it became clear that the London Haydn Quartet were unable to play on 31 July, tickets had already been sold and Philip Britton had to find a replacement – preferably one that played on early instruments. Jonathan Byers, known to Cratfield as the cellist of the Badke Quartet, also plays ‘his other cello’ in period ensembles and was able to gather three colleagues to form a quartet.
It was evidently a really happy band and they played well together. Michael Gurevich, who would have been playing second violin with the London Haydn Quartet, for this concert played first violin. (Quartetto Rossi was chosen as the three men are redheads and, though Simone Jandl didn’t fit the description, Jonathan has a red beard!)
As music in the nineteenth century was played in ever larger spaces, more volume was required from the string instruments and their construction changed to provide extra strength; gut strings were wound with metal wire and and a new style of playing emerged.
The Quartetto Rossi were playing instruments with gut strings, the cello supported between the knees as it has no spike; they used an earlier style of bow held differently and they played with an almost complete absence of vibrato. The result is a warmer, softer sound: Nikolaus Harnoncourt described it as ‘quiet, but with a sweet sharpness’. The lack of vibrato is quite noticeable and demands greater accuracy in pitching notes.
The set of six string quartets op 20 Haydn wrote in 1772 were the culmination of twenty years’ experience of writing baryton trios, trio sonatas and two earlier sets of string quartets. As Donald Tovey put it: ‘with op 20 the historical development of Haydn’s quartets reaches its goal; and further progress is not progress in any historical sense, but simply the difference between one masterpiece and the next.’ Haydn was devising ways of valuing each of the four instruments equally, not treating one or two as soloists with an accompaniment. We heard op 20 no 3 of this set: I was delighted to hear it with fresh ears though it had been played at Cratfield by the Navarra Quartet in 2010 (on modern instruments).
The concert had started with a quartet Haydn wrote 18 years later in 1790, op 64 no 1. This quartet was familiar, though it hadn’t been played before at Cratfield.
The final quartet was one of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, K 428. It was written in about 1784, so almost exactly between the two Haydn quartets we had heard before the interval. I don’t remember hearing one of the Mozart ‘Haydn’ quartets in the same programme as a Haydn quartet and my initial reaction was a feeling that, in direct contrast, the Mozart sounded more assured. This was rather a setback for me as I had previously thought of myself as a committed Haydn enthusiast. Perhaps it was just that I was more familiar with the Mozart.
What was a bigger challenge was the sparing use of vibrato. Though I have several recordings of Quatuor Mosaïques playing Haydn quartets, almost all the recorded and concert performances of string quartets I have heard have been played on modern instruments. The Quartetto Rossi played with impressive ensemble and enthusiasm and one knew that this was much closer to the sound heard by Haydn and Mozart, but I still look forward to hearing performances of string quartets, even early ones by Haydn, on modern instruments. Nonetheless, the fine playing of the Quartetto Rossi convinced me that we would benefit from hearing more performances on instruments contemporary to the music being played.
6 August 2016
After the season got off to such a brilliant start two weeks ago with the excitement of Nicholas Daniel performing the specially-commissioned Fanfare for a New Roof and the Carducci Quartet in predictably fine form, the bar might seem to have been set intimidatingly high for our second concert.It did not prove so, however, for the Heath Quartet. They took that standard in their elegant stride and added a special bonus for Members and Patrons by coming to Suffolk a day early and giving a gem of a performance on Saturday evening at the Christies’ converted barn at Parham. We heard three pieces by JS Bach, transcribed for strings from his original organ compositions, and Mozart’s last string quartet, K590. The exuberant note on which the Mozart ended seemed wholly in tune with the idyllic summer evening and the charm of the setting.
Improbably, for a normal summer, the idyll was set to continue when we returned to Cratfield on Sunday. It proved to be another perfect English summer day; temperature in the low eighties, a hint of a breeze, the leaves not yet tired and the grass still fresh. On such occasions St Mary’s churchyard is at its incomparable, Betjeman best and the church positively glowing in the sunlight.
Having ended with Mozart on Saturday, we began with an earlier work of his on Sunday; the ‘Hunt’ quartet, K458. It is an exuberant piece and the lively rhythms, particularly in the first movement, brought out an aspect of performance generally to which I had not previously paid much attention; for not only did the Heath play beautifully, they moved beautifully. This was made possible because they stand to play. In full orchestral performances conductors are recognisable by their gestures, for better or for worse, but to the concertgoer they contribute little towards enjoying the variety of elements in the music. By contrast, on Sunday we saw how each of these young musicians could endorse with their movements the dynamic and emotion in their respective parts in a way that would not have been possible had they been sitting. Grace and restraint were of course needed, and these they had, so the effect in ensemble was to offer a quite unexpected, further layer of enjoyment; yet another pleasure exclusive to live performance – so away with chairs, I say. Christopher Murray, the cellist, had no choice, of course, but having his own small podium he was not lost to view.
Bartok’s quartet no 3 followed the Mozart, a leap of nearly a century and a half. It offered rather less balletic scope for the group but it was a refreshing contrast and produced some intriguing and unusual sounds, fully explained in Philip Britton’s programme notes. Philip’s introductions are now indispensable to my enjoyment of the concerts; they are building into a sort of personalised mini-Grove, scholarly but always readable, and a fine memory substitute for previous years.
The interval followed, time for tea and cakes, and especially time for further reflections on setting and the importance of adding variety to our sensory experience. It was pleasing to note that the tree seat in the shade of the copper beech, installed in memory of one of the concert founders David Holmes, was filled full circle as never before.
The highlight of the day was a truly outstanding performance of Beethoven’s quartet in B flat, op 130. I can add nothing to Philip’s description of the work except to say that it was big and completely satisfying. The Heath were playing superbly, moving elegantly and the late afternoon light through the clerestory was quite glorious; it was a perfect sum of pleasures.
20 July 2016
Concert review: Carducci String Quartet with Nicholas Daniel (oboe and cor anglais); Sunday 3 July 2016
However dank and gloomy our summer may be, there is always the consolation of looking forward every other Sunday for twelve weeks to a concert at St Mary’s Cratfield. The standard kept up by the organisers, who give us an alternating succession of highly distinguished and relatively new but highly talented musicians, playing familiar and unfamiliar music to entertain and stimulate us, never ceases to amaze.
The opening concert of this season certainly came into the highly distinguished category, combining one of the finest string quartets around with one of the most accomplished and world-famous woodwind players of our age. It opened literally with a flourish – the first performance of a fanfare to celebrate the replacement of the lead roof of the North Aisle stolen last summer, written by a composer closely associated with Concerts at Cratfield, Elena Langer, and scored for oboe and four triangles. It is a brilliant and highly enjoyable piece, requiring prodigies of virtuosity from the principal performer who is required to produce an extraordinary range of tonal and pitch variations extending over the full range of the instrument from bottom to very top. It could not have had a more accomplished and amazing introduction and I enjoyed it hugely as obviously did the audience generally, giving performer(s| and composer a considerable ovation.
The other work in the programme new at least to me was the Concertino for oboe and string quartet named The Flaying of Marsyas, written by David Matthews and inspired by Titian’s remarkable last painting. I have to say that, while I have never seen the original, it is an artwork which I find very difficult to look at in reproduction, depicting as it does the agonising death of Marsyas, hung upside-down and skinned alive while Apollo looks on – the penalty for challenging Apollo to a musical contest and losing. However, David Matthews has been able to find an element of consolation and even compassion culminating in Marsyas’s blood being transformed into a river, a kind of apotheosis comparable perhaps to Daphne’s transformation into a laurel tree. Matthews has certainly been able to create remarkably beautiful and moving instrumental music out of the legend, depicting in his score the whole story including Marsyas’s discovery of a reed that will play music, his gradual mastery of it, his foolhardy challenge to Apollo, the competition itself, Marsyas’s terrible death which is not underplayed and his final apotheosis It may be more correctly described as written for oboe, solo violin and string trio as the Quartet’s first violin, Matthew Denton, was required to play an equal role depicting Apollo with the oboe representing Marsyas. Needless to say it received a flawless and ultimately uplifting performance. No doubt the audience’s appreciation was enhanced, as certainly was mine, by the short spoken introduction given by Matthews himself, supplementing the already very helpful programme note extracted from one written by Mike Wheeler for its performance at the Leicesster International Music Festival in 2013.
The rest of the works in the concert were more familiar, except perhaps for the Adagio in C by Mozart written for cor anglais and three other unspecified instruments, in this case three members of the quartet, a beautiful little piece reminiscent of his choral Ave Verum Corpus. This was followed by the 11th quartet of Shostakovich, strange and melancholy, and Mozart’s Oboe Quartet, of which there is little more that can be said but that it is Mozart at his peak. The final work, played by the quartet alone, was Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet op 95, again a strange and disturbing work which never ceases to surprise by its mixture of violence and lyricism but with its sunny cheerful ending, perhaps Beethoven saying ‘cheer up, things aren’t so bad after all’, coming as a surprise, however often it is heard.
An additional nice surprise was the very generous provision of free tea and sinfully delicious cakes provided by the parish in the interval as a gesture of thanks for the contribution of concertgoers to the cost of the roof repair. As ever, the erudite and well-written programme notes by Philip Britton for all the works other than that by David Matthews added greatly to our appreciation of the music.
Altogether a really splendid opening to the season which promises many other delights to come..
10 July 2016