Concert reviews

 

"What do Mozart, Ravel, Brahms and Bartok have in common? Not so much, apart from the letters 'R' and 'A'. Fortunately, there's no law that states that concerts need to mine the same seam or riff on the same theme. But the evening presented a slightly random selection, nonetheless – especially as the Ravel was going to be some Stravinsky until rehearsal constraints (or some such) put the latter's Divertimento in the too difficult pile. Ironically, those two pieces would have sat well alongside each other in a study of music in Paris in the 1920s, having been premiered there within a year of each other. But in the event it was the influence of American jazz that we encountered rather than the sound of Russian exile.

The musicianship of the two performers was never in doubt, although the balance of forces was – especially in the Mozart Violin Sonata in F Major (K377). While the piece followed the convention of the time in putting the piano centre-stage (and Mozart himself described it as for 'piano with accompaniment for violin'), Mozart didn't play a modern Fazioli grand and the keyboard threatened to drown out the violin on occasion. Noam Greenberg’s fluid technique propelled the opening allegro along, with Jonian Ilias Kadesha offering commentary. One can imagine Mozart having simply sat down one evening at the fortepiano and improvised the subsequent Andante Theme and Variations, but the movement showed the limitations of that popular 18th century form – the self-imposed restriction of palette as the same tropes were revisited and rearranged. Not Mozart's finest creation. Nonetheless, the 6th variation, a Siciliano, broke the rhythm established in its predecessors and offered a tender conclusion, ahead of the final Minuet and Trio.

The Ravel Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major was the composer's last chamber work and familiarity with his earlier trio and quartet do not prepare the listener for the rather jagged piano line in the opening Allegretto. There is something ethereal and dreamlike about this movement, an impression reinforced by the high register of much of the violin part before a final dissolving into silence. The second movement, Blues. Moderato, shifts key (into A flat major) and setting, introducing us to the jazz beloved of Ravel and the work's dedicatee, the violinist Hélène Jourdan Morhange. Ironically, what then was edgy now reaches us with an aura of nostalgia for a lost age – and hints of Milhaud, Gershwin and the like. But the final Perpetuum Mobile Allegro tipped the audience back out of the smokey atmosphere of Paris' jazz clubs into a fast and furious ride to the end. All perfectly articulated. As Ravel reportedly liked to remark of his efforts, "Personne n'avait jamais fait ça!" Well, Greenberg and Kadesha certainly did.

Whether Brahms in his later years would have approved of jazz is an unanswerable question, but by 1888 (at the great age of 55!) he had achieved the status 'grand old man' of Romanticism (or boring old reactionary, depending on your point of view). His Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor was the most conventional of the pieces in the programme, its opening theme delightful and beautifully developed; the easy-on-the-ear Cavatina of the second movement Adagio as uncomplicated as the Ravel was complex. But the Brahms sonata is not without movement and drama. The third movement might be marked 'con sentimento' but the light rhythms avoid any hint of maudlin and soggy romance. Indeed the fourth movement cost the violinist a string – which he did not allow to interrupt the work's progress to a thundering conclusion. A thoroughly enjoyable performance.

We then returned to the roaring twenties but were taken far from louche Parisian nightlife, to Hungary, where Bartok worked up a Transylvanian melody and other folk tunes he'd collected into Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Piano (subtitled 'folk-dances'), introducing East-European fiddle-playing styles into the western concert hall repertoire. The ear is left in no doubt as to which part of the old continent we are in – or as to the virtuosic skills of the players, with the speed ratcheting during part two of the Rhapsody and the violin often having to 'double-stop' to achieve the desired harmonies.

A nice touch was the encore – a folk song from Romania, brief, light and humorous, calculated to send us home with a spring in our step. Claygate was fortunate to have attracted two such gifted artists. Their busy solo schedules, as reported in the programme notes, suggest that their musical partnership may be a rather fleeting and occasional occurrence. But it was good to witness it in such unusually diverse repertoire."

 

ROB ESDAILE ON JONIAN ILIAS KADESHA (VIOLIN) AND NOAM GREENBERG (PIANO), 13 NOVEMBER 2021

 

 

" Do you stick to motorways and main roads when travelling or do you have a penchant for B-roads and byways? And what of your musical tastes? If you like the predictability of known names and mainstream repertoire, then Spiritato! (the exclamation mark is part of the name) is probably not going to be your cup of tea. But if you like exploring the hinterland of the Baroque, the ensemble (2 violins, cello, double-bass, harpsichord continuo and 'natural' trumpet, with attendant mezzo-soprano, in this concert's iteration) certainly serve up some tasty dishes and bonnes bouches. Messrs Johann Christoph Pepusch, William Corbett and (splendidly named!) Obadiah Shuttleworth were here rescued from obscurity in performances that were, well, spirited. Tom Foster's harpsichord provided a firm foundation throughout while the string quartet handled their 'authentic' gut-stringed baroque-style instruments with flair (and the patience required to tune them between musical numbers).

It is no negative judgement on the quartet to say that the stars of the show were William Russell, with his trumpet flourishes, and Ciara Hendrick. The purity of tone and accuracy of pitch of the former were astonishing (at least to this reviewer, who struggled through his schooldays to master a conventional valved trumpet), while Ciara Hendrick showed such a commitment to the vocal parts she performed and such a stage presence that disbelief in some of the lyrics was willingly suspended. 'Leave me, silly shepherd, go / You only tell me what I know' in Pepusch's Chloe is hardly Shakespeare.

So here's the rub. Is there perhaps a reason why Obadiah Shuttleworth is so rarely remembered? M'Learned Friends in the copyright law department might nowadays take an interest in his reworking of Arcangelo Corelli's Violin Sonatas, while it is legitimate to ask whether the overture to Mr Handel's Fam'd Water Piece (a sort of Greatest Hits compilation reckoned by the band not to have been assembled by Georg Frideric himself) adds anything – apart from a rather fun period title – to the maestro's music. And it is hard to believe that King George II's subjects were as excited about his accession as Ciara Hendrick in 'While Pale Britannia Pensive Sate' – reckoned by William Russell to be the first political cantata in English. Some, of course, might detect a certain contemporary resonance in the assessment of the state of the nation by Pepusch's lyricist: 'Well may thy foes in triumph smile / While thou thyself not they destroy thee …' but that's another story. 

B-roads and byways, then – and a test for the hearer's temperament. Should we explore them as an intellectual exercise, in order the better to understand the musical landscape of the early Hanoverian period in London's musical life, benefiting from the ensemble's evident scholarship and knack of tracking down mouldering manuscripts and forgotten folios? Or simply suspend disbelief, let 'Fragrant Flora host appear / Goddess of the youthful year', and enjoy the ride, spiritato, exclamation-mark and all? Either approach is possible, but on a Saturday night in October, I recommend the latter."

 

ROB ESDAILE ON SPIRITATO! BAROQUE ENSEMBLE WITH MEZZO-SOPRANO CIARA HENDRICK, 16 October 2021

 

"After an 18-month hiatus caused by the pandemic, The Oxshott & Cobham Music Society has prefaced its 2021-22 season with a 'Mini-Festival' of 3 recitals in the course of 8 days – a reward to members for their patience but also a bold statement of the desire to support live music-making in the area. And the silence brought about by the pandemic was broken in the best possible way, with a cracking performance by the Mithras Trio, a group formed at the Guildhall School of Music in 2017 which has garnered a fine reputation over the last four years and is now adopted by the BBC New Generation Artist scheme. Intelligent programming took the audience on a 175-year journey through the history of the Trio as a musical form.

 

Neither the concert programme notes provided on the night nor the Trio's own website reveals why they adopted the name of an ancient mystery religion whose myth focused on the sacrifice of a bull, but they certainly served up a veritable feast of music (banquets being the other thing associated with the cult of Mithras). The programme began with a relatively early Haydn Trio (Hob XV:41 from 1767), the sort of work which might be dismissed as 'conventional' and 'undemanding' by some, but which might also attract epiphets such as refined, civilised and simply delightful. While the piece did not by any means stretch the technical capacities of the three musicians, providing a crisp and compelling rendition of the more familiar rhythms and cadences of the classical period depends on the players' powers of communication not only towards the audience but among themselves. Undemonstrative and yet clearly enjoying their music and each other's company, the Haydn proved a great hors d'oeuvre before the two meatier pieces which followed.

We then leapt forward 115 years to Brahms' late 3rd Piano Trio (Op. 101). The old caricature of the now-bearded Brahms as having become an old reactionary and opponent of progress by this stage of his life is belied by the restless force of the piece – a dramatic, seemingly confident opening, certainly (marked allegro energetico), but one that gave way to more darkly probing passages. The shifting time-signatures of the third movement point forward to the twentieth century's doubt, rather than back to the self-confidence of the high Romantic period. And in the final movement the trio returned to the dramatic tones with which it began. All beautifully executed, of course.

But it was the third piece, Shostakovich's Piano Trio No 2 in E minor (Op. 67) which really showed off the technical prowess of each of the three players, Leo Popplewell establishing the elegiac purpose of the composition from the off with the haunting melody, played in harmonics in the very uppermost register of the cello, then opened up into a conversation with Ionel Manciu's violin and Dominic Degavino's pianism (which in places as the Trio proceeded was at times, rightly, far from piano but always masterful in rhythm and tone). It is unsurprising that a piece written in the Soviet Union in 1944 should be at times both disturbed and disturbing, but the rhythmic mastery of the performers meant that it was always utterly compelling, gripping, an exciting musical journey. At the end of the voyage, the haunting largo in memory of Shostakovich's fellow composer, Ivan Sollerttinsky, gives way to the final Allegretto, with its Yiddish klezmer rhythms and its eventual drawing together of the various thematic threads of the piece in a final repose.

While there were cries of 'more' from audience members, I was personally glad that there was no encore. After such a mighty work, any bonne bouche would have seemed insipid. This was musicianship of the highest quality. And what a great start to the new season. Live music is very much back in town thanks to the Oxshott & Cobham Music Society. I look forward to the rest of the season.

 

ROB ESDAILE ON MITHRAS TRIO RECITAL, 18 September, 2021

“Eric Lu came and went saying not a word in this eloquent recital, preferring to let his fingers do the talking. Only a stiff formal bow (and perhaps a hint of a smile at the end) acknowledged the enthusiastic audience’s applause. But that was the only thing which was stiff in his fluent performance. In fact, we felt like bystanders – albeit very privileged bystanders – in his conversation with the keyboard, his head often at piano lid level as he hunched over the instrument”

 

ROB ESDAILE ON ERIC LU'S RECITAL, 7 December, 2019

“No-one attending the concert given by Trio con Brio Copenhagen, could possibly fail to recognise that the publicity concerning their musicianship and technical ability was not overblown or inaccurate. This was a stunning concert. From the beginning of the Haydn, one was aware of the tremendous rapport between players. The music was allowed to flow between instruments; melodies or themes being taken up and passed on with no-one trying to shine as an individual, thus creating a seamless flow  and interchange.  Nevertheless, one could not help being aware of the tremendous technique of the pianist, Jens Elvekjaer, whose sole job seemed to be to dazzle, create and re-create the brilliant lively theme with rapid fingerwork, occasional trills, scale and arpeggio passages which are a feature of this piece”

 

SUZANNE CONNOR ON TRIO CON BRIO, 9 November 2019

“The Mozart, with three movements: Allegro, Andante and Rondo: Allegro, demonstrated the contrast between the classical style and the romantic style of Schumann. I’m very fond of Mozart’s operas, and some of the symphonies, particularly K550 (No. 40), and the Jupiter, No. 41. All of the canon, of course, displays the composer’s astounding genius in the classical era. The quartet was quieter that the Schumann, naturally, but the skill of the performers was, once again, fully evident, and the audience fully enjoyed it”

 

NIGEL WOODS ON THE PIXELS ENSEMBLE, 19 October 2019