Sunday 10 September 2017
Bach, Borodin, Beethoven
So another splendid season of Concerts at Cratfield has come to an end, to paraphrase Eliot, not with a whimper but a bang; in the form of one of the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written played by one of the world’s most distinguished ensembles, the Brodsky Quartet.
They started their recital with an unexpected but very welcome item, a selection of two movements from J S Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Although probably not intended by Bach to be performed but rather designed as a primer in the art of fugue-writing and therefore not written for any specific instrumentation, it is now increasingly played by chamber music ensembles as well as by solo instruments such as harpsichord or piano. The string quartet is the ideal ensemble for four-part fugues as each strand of Bach’s writing is made clear for the listener. They followed this with a fugue by Mendelssohn, a passionate admirer of Bach and one of the first advocates of his music. Mendelssohn’s own considerable skill at fugue writing is usually made apparent in his oratorios especially in the choruses. This is one of four fugues which he wrote for string quartet and, as was to be expected, it proved ingenious and enjoyable.
Next was one of the most popular string quartets of the later 19th century, Borodin’s second in D major. Surprisingly, despite its popularity largely due to two of its themes being ‘borrowed’ for songs in the musical Kismet, this was the first time it, or indeed any music by Borodin, had been played at Cratfield, and it received a performance of unashamed romanticism and virtuosity to great effect.
Following the severity of the fugues and the lushness of the Borodin, the Brodsky Quartet ended their recital and the whole series of Concerts at Cratfield 2017 with, as already said, one of the greatest works in the string quartet repertoire, indeed arguably one of the greatest works of music ever composed, Beethoven’s Quartet No 14 in C sharp minor Opus 131. If one says ‘one of the greatest’, it can only be by comparison with the other five late quartets by Beethoven. at least one or two of which equal, or to some listeners, even exceed it in greatness. Written in a single span but divided into seven distinct sections lasting some 40 minutes, it comprises the whole range of human emotions from deep despair to transcendent joy with some episodes of sheer playfulness along the way. It leaves the listener in astonishment and awe at the transcendence of the genius that conceived it and wonder that any human mind could have done so. All that can be said of the performance is that it was worthy of the work and brought the season of concerts to a fitting conclusion.
The whole series of concerts has been outstanding and tribute must be paid to the organisers. The programme as announced for next year looks equally interesting and varied and I certainly look forward to it. I must again pay my respects to David Mintz, the writer of the very interesting and comprehensive programme notes which have added so much to my enjoyment of the concerts and, of course, to the delicious tea and cakes so generously provided in the intervals by volunteers from St Mary’s, Cratfield!
16 September 2017
Sunday 27 August 2017
Lendvai String Trio
Röntgen, Schubert, Bach
Concert organisers still have work to do to persuade some audiences that a string trio – and its repertoire – are not just the poor relations of the string quartet. Not at Cratfield, though: St Mary’s housed an eager audience for this fifth and last-but-one concert of the 2017 season. With typically careful programme planning, the Lendvai had two sure-fire composers’ names which produced a church full almost to capacity: Schubert and Bach.
They opened with the B flat Schubert trio, D581, a middle-period work and Schubert’s only completed string trio: rarely played, so ideal to have the chance to hear the work live. The Lendvai showed a perfect blend of colours, especially the viola in the trio following the minuet. It proved to be a lightweight but delightful piece, though far less characterful than the composer’s late quartets and string quintet. As violinist Nadia Wijenbeek said from the platform, Schubert had not found it easy to write for this very exposing combination of instruments.
They followed with a tempting ‘wild card’: a late 1920s trio in C minor from the prolific, but now hardly played (at least in Britain), German-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen, all of whose trios the Lendvai have recorded. In his time, he was famous enough in the Netherlands to merit his name being one of those in relief on the outer edge of the balcony of the main hall of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, which in part recognised his role in the project to build the concert hall in the late 1880s.
It turned out to be a genial and lightweight work to explore, as well as agreeably compact, in a style harking back to Brahms but adding occasional elements of unthreatening modernism. Its ‘Finale automobilistico’ is programme music, very unusual in the chamber repertoire, and explains the whole work’s ‘Auto trio’ nickname. It wittily represents a summer motoring holiday, the composer and his family driving in a 990cc Fiat ‘Torpedo’ 509A through Germany, France, Switzerland and northern Italy, with what sounded like numerous surprises and near-disasters. The trio made the most of the opportunities in the music and may have encouraged the audience to explore other Röntgen on disc.
In the second half, it was specially good to hear pre-classical instrumental music for a change, in a season dominated by music written after 1800. Most people know the story, in all likelihood a complete myth, about the composition of the Goldberg Variations as a gift by Bach to his pupil Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, in order to assist Goldberg’s patron Count Keyserlink to survive insomnia. Implausible though this is, Goldberg’s name is now inseparable from the variations. The attraction of arranging them for string trio is to make the separate lines of the counterpoint clearer and to give greater varieties of colour, texture and volume than could the two-manual harpsichord for which Bach intended them. The recent Sitkovetsky arrangement, as played by the Lendvai, has become a fixture in the string trio repertoire, including on disc, and for good reason: all the notes are there, but they come up fresh in this new guise, and Bach’s genius survives intact such thoughtful reorganization. The Lendvai wisely made the decision to play each variation once only (Bach’s original asked for each to be repeated, making for at least an hour and a half’s music). Playing with modern instruments and bows, they came closer to a sound Bach would have recognized by using very little vibrato, which in turn required pinpoint intonation from each player. The return to the original theme at the very end was a perfect summation of what had gone before; and sent the audience home clearly delighted with the whole afternoon. As always, the interval refreshments from a parish team were superb: they add an important non-musical extra ingredient to ‘the Cratfield experience’.
28 August 2017
Sunday 13 August 2017
The Aronowitz Ensemble
Schubert, Fauré, Brahms
Of all the forms of chamber music ensemble the piano quartet – comprising a string trio of violin, viola and cello with piano – is the least often encountered. It poses problems of balance between strings and piano which fall between the extremes of solo string instrument and piano, trio of violin, cello and piano at one end and the piano quintet of two violins, viola, cello and piano at the other: for this reason, many composers simply fight shy of it. It was therefore a particularly interesting move for the organisers of Concerts at Cratfield to arrange a programme consisting entirely of piano quartets; what is more a programme of pieces for the grouping which were almost wholly unfamiliar to me in many decades of music listening.
The performers were four members of the admirable Aronowitz Ensemble; violinist Magnus Johnston, familiar to many of us as the founder leader of the then Johnston and now Elias Quartet, violist Tom Hankey, cellist Sebastien van der Kuijk and last but by no possible measure least the outstanding pianist Tom Poster. If I single out Poster for particular attention it is because the format, certainly in the hands of the composers featured in this recital makes special demands on the pianist – all overcome with what seemed almost insolent ease on this occasion. This is not in any way to underestimate the equal technical and musical demands of the parts assigned to the other instruments all also overcome with apparent ease – I say ‘apparent’ because this was clearly due to a very close musical relationship between all the performers. Problems of ensemble and balance inherent in the format and in particular the music chosen can only be overcome by a close and continuous working relationship and a great deal of sheer hard work.
Of the three works performed there was only one which I can recollect having heard before and this was the last in the programme, Brahms’s 2nd Piano Quartet. This is an impressive work, perhaps, if I dare say it, a bit overblown at 50 minutes in length. It is very similar in its writing to the better-known and magnificent F minor Piano Quintet, one of my favourite chamber works, but unfortunately to my mind not quite its equal in quality. In a lesser performance it would probably have outstayed its welcome from me, but on this occasion the performance was so compelling that I was sorry when it ended. The first work in the programme was a work by Schubert which I was astonished to realise I do not recollect ever hearing before, a single movement Adagio and Rondo Concertante in F, cheerful, highly enjoyable and unusually virtuosic in its writing particularly for the piano (Schubert no doubt looking to impress his friends by playing it at one of his musical evenings).
The real revelation of the afternoon was the second item in the programme, the Piano Quartet No 2 in G minor by, of all people, Gabriel Fauré. I say of all people since had I been asked to guess the composer this would have been about the last name I would have come up with, associating him as I have always done with beautiful lyrical songs and piano pieces, gentle and usually, soothing. I might well have said Brahms. It is big, weighty, hugely virtuosic for all players and both impressive and beautiful. I cannot imagine why it is not performed widely and often since it is a superb work giving immense opportunities to all players in the ensemble to shine – I would have thought it would be seized on by chamber musicians, but so far as I am aware I have never heard it before in the concert hall or on radio. I strongly recommend the purchase of a recording; if you love the Brahms Piano Quintet as I do you will love it.
I cannot end the review without acknowledging the great debt I owe in writing it to the splendid programme notes now written by David Mintz, keeping up the very high standard previously set by Philip Britton. A snip at £1!
19 August 2017
Sunday 30 July 2017
Ibert, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Renié
French chamber music of the 20th century could not be described as a Cratfield staple. Having remarked last year on its rather rare appearance at our Suffolk venue, I was more than delighted to see in the 2017 programme one concert devoted to French works, and a work by Faure forming part of a second. Another special aspect of last week’s concert was the appearance of the harp. As the notes pointed out, this instrument has not formed part of a ‘Concerts at Cratfield’ programme for some years, so it was a great pleasure and privilege to see the harp again. It’s always good to hear performers speak about their chosen instruments and their chosen works, and in this the three players of Chroma engaged with the audience in an exemplary manner – judging their audience well. Eleanor Turner’s short disquisition on the green harp was a good example of such communication: we learnt that harps were originally brightly coloured and decorated, almost garish in appearance, not the pale, varnished instruments to which we are used. Eleanor’s bright green harp takes back the tradition.
We often remark on the very high standard of performance that is achieved in our Suffolk Summer Sunday recitals, and this Sunday was no exception. Perhaps particularly so when one realized that Chroma is a collective of 20 musicians and that the three who played for us at Cratfield are not always performing together. Their ensemble playing and enjoyment of each other’s work, as well as of their own, was a joy to watch and to hear. It is perhaps invidious then to pick out one, but – for myself – I thought David Le Page’s performance was exceptional: he was so much at ease, at one with the music, everything was effortlessly thoughtful, and simply beautiful. We’re also now used to detailed programme notes, both for the works themselves but also for general background. This Sunday I was struck by the importance of dates. I’m a historian so dates matter, but I think we’re all aware of the backdrop against which 20th century music was being composed, so it was helpful to have the pieces set in their historical context. And, of course, it was very pleasing so have a woman composer, Henriette Renié (1875-1956) whose particular life story added to our understanding of the music which brought the concert to an end. This was a classically elegant trio, a long and accomplished piece which our three instrumentalists really showcased.
The concert began with someone who was almost contemporary with Renié, Jacques Ibert (1890-1962). I confess to knowing little of Ibert’s music so was pleased to see the trio for violin, cello and harp on the programme. Although contemporary with music of Poulence, it was in quite a different idiom. Written during the war and first performed in 1946, the piece had an energy and brightness, alongside some darker moments , that perhaps captured both the hardship and the endurance of France at that time. It was on display in the writing for each of the three instruments, but particularly in the harp, beautifully played by Eleanor Turner. The harp and cello spoke to each other in shorter pieces by Debussy (transcriptions of two songs) and Saint-Saens (two romances), all four pieces new to Cratfield. There was a clarity and lyrical quality to each of these pieces which both instrumentalists expressed so well, with Clare O’Donnell’s cello playing particularly warm.
Finally, to the Fantaisie for violin and harp by Saint-Saens. Of a generation earlier than Ibert or Renié, Saint Saens (1835-1921) wrote this piece in 1907, at time when earlier personal tragedies were beginning to fade. It is so well crafted, with its clever changes of mood and tempi, delicate and more passionate sections, allowing each instrument to ‘breathe’ and express itself but also to work with its partner. And yet again it was elegantly and very beautifully played. There was a really satisfied and respectful silence as the piece came to a close and the audience ‘stood back’ to take it in before the applause, and the queue for tea.
4 August 2017
Sunday 16 July 2017
Schubert, Fauré, Brahms
The small village of Cratfield is hidden in High Suffolk and probably busiest nearly 2,000 years ago when the Romans tramped along the road through the centre! But on Sunday there was an unusual flurry of activity around the 14th century Church of St Mary, the setting for the second concert in the 2017 season of Concerts at Cratfield. On a warm summer afternoon the village ladies were cutting up cakes and buttering scones ready for the interval tea as the audience settled down to enjoy a programme of music for string quartet – the quintessential chamber music format in a quintessentially English environment.
The audience was captivated by a programme which caught the interest in various ways: first, Suk, Janacek, and Dvorak were major figures in the development of Czech music around the turn of the 19th century; then, all three quartets were written within thirty years of each other; finally, the music was emotionally testing. The configuration of the players – the way they positioned themselves – was also ‘different’. In the 1800s the usual arrangement was first violin, cello, viola, and second violin. This changed in the 1900s to first violin, second violin, viola, and cello. The Zemlinsky Quartet used the older configuration – something which has become increasingly popular nowadays. Does the configuration matter? I think it does. There are two important considerations for the quartet: communication and projection of sound. Of course, the first violin is the leader and must be positioned so as to be able to communicate easily with the other players. But with the cello in the middle of the group the bass line and the depth of sound project more effectively – personally I prefer this configuration.
Josef Suk’s Quartet no.1, op.11, dates from 1896 and was a half hour in which to relax and leave the worries of the week behind. The Zemlinsky Quartet, playing the music of their own country, caught the pleasant nature of this music which could easily have been accompanied by a glass of light white wine on a terrace.
Janacek’s Intimate Letters was quite another matter. The deeply disturbing, and disturbed, music demanded attention as the musicians plunged into the maelstrom of sounds and emotions created by this passionate love-struck old man. Obsessive love was not a happy experience for Janacek and the music at times conjured up images of super-charged intensity such as Van Gogh’s vibrating stars. It was a fine performance, with marvellous ensemble playing, although I wondered if they could have taken us deeper into Janacek’s obsession – could the contrasts in sound and tempo have been more exaggerated? Could the sudden breaks and changes in thought have been more disturbing? And, having listened to the Borodin Quartet recently, would an overall texture of the work which was more transparent, more three-dimensional, more refined, have sucked us further into this strange mind?
Refreshed by tea and cakes we travelled to America with Dvorak for the delightful American Quartet. And yet the music remained firmly rooted in Eastern Europe despite the hoedown and hints of the blues. For me the cello caught the richness of the Eastern European subtleties of rhythm and nuances of tone, and at times I wished the first violin had been similarly uninhibited. It was none the less a very fine performance.
But there was no inhibition at all in the exuberant encore, Smetana’s Dance of the Comedians, which sent the audience on their way smiling!
Sunday 2 July 2017
Fairest Isle: English Songs, Music for the viola and piano
James Gilchrist tenor, Anna Tilbrook piano, Philip Dukes viola
“Aren’t we privileged to be here, listening to such exquisite music in this enchanting church?”
These were the words of one of Cratfield’s most loyal and regular concert-goers when I asked for a view about Sunday’s concert. And I agree wholeheartedly.
The church was bathed in warm sunshine inside and out and Cratfield regulars were meeting and greeting at the start of Cratfield’s 30th Season. What a pleasure it was to be back at Cratfield with the promise of a new season stretching out before us.
It was a bit of a ‘break in tradition’ to start with a programme of English song rather than a ‘straight’ chamber music concert, and the format probably did not suit everyone – one Cratfield regular said it was “all right”. For me it was an absolute joy.
The tenor voice is generally not my favourite, but I always love watching and hearing James Gilchrist sing. He has a magical way of communicating with the audience – I could hear every word so could look at him rather than peering at the words so helpfully provided with David Mintz’s programme notes.
I have recently heard many of the songs performed on Sunday in other settings – the Somerset Song Prize for developing singers and pianists just starting to establish their careers, held in Taunton in May, and at the recent ‘Singing Britten’ masterclass at Snape Maltings. I am certain that the participants in both these events would have learned so much from watching and listening to James Gilchrist and Anna Tillbrook’s performance.
As a music-lover with no formal musical education, it took me some time to understand the significance of the pianist in song recitals and the relationship between the singer and instrumentalist. The co-operation, respect and thoughtfulness between all the musicians for one another’s performances just shone out for me on Sunday.
The viola is fast becoming my favourite string instrument – I like to listen out for the viola ‘line’ in string quartets. I love its warm tones and resonance of its sound. So for me, the inclusion of the viola pieces in the programme was a welcome bonus and I so enjoyed Philip Dukes’s playing.
I know that Cratfield performers have, in the past, been asked not to make any introductions to what they’re about to play or sing, as the audience is knowledgeable and can feel patronised. Well – this audience member doesn’t agree. While I would not want long lectures, I found Philip Dukes’s introduction to ‘Lachrymae’ just right. It’s helpful to me, with an unfamiliar piece, to be given clues as to what to listen out for and this is what he did. Another audience member said it was “short, informative and gave you a sense of expectation”. And the decision to play the Dowland melody through first was perfect for me.
At the end of the concert, several members of the audience approached me to express their views. Their comments included:
“I could listen to that all over again.”
“Wonderful, wonderful – singing fantastic!”
“What a range of expression and variety of musical textures from such a small group.”
And this was just the start – lots more and very different experiences to come through the Season – aren’t we fortunate?