Concert reviews 2017

 Sunday 30 July 2017

Chroma Trio

Ibert, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Renie

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.

Claire Daunton

4 August 2017

Sunday 16 July 2017

Zemlinsky Quartet

Schubert, Faure, 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!

Candy Blackham

July 2017

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?

Gill Bracey

July 2017