18 November 2023
Chen Reiss has a most delicious voice, unforced and with a purity of tone matched by rich colours in her lower register. Marc Verter is a very adept accompanist, unshowy but providing reliable support throughout – and demonstrated his own mastery of the keyboard in his solo items – Clara Schumann’s Romanze No 1 (Op 21) and Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capricioso (Op 14).
The programme, described by Chen Reiss in her introduction as 'Songs by two wonderful women composers and the men in their life' was very well chosen. The two wonderful women were Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn). The men were, predictably, Schumann’s husband, Robert, and Fanny’s brother, Felix – but also Fanny’s husband, Wilhelm, royal court painter in Berlin, who provided the libretto for the Scena, 'Hero und Leander'.
It was appropriate that the first songs came from Robert Schumann’s wedding gift to Clara, the collection 'Myrthen' (Myrtles – Op 25), since their love story played its part in the development of both composers – Clara prodding Robert to write on larger orchestral canvases, Robert less helpfully wanting her to prioritise her duties as a mother (with 10 pregnancies yielding 8 live births in the 14 years before Robert’s attempted suicide) and asking her to limit her practising to times when he was out of the house. Nonetheless, compose she did, grateful for those “hours of self-forgetfulness when one lives in a world of sound”. The first of Clara’s songs we heard used a text from Heinrich Heine, 'Sie liebten sich beide', telling of a couple who – unlike the Schumanns – never declared their secret love, while the second, 'Liebst du um Schönheit' warned off any lover who wanted to love only for beauty, youth or riches – but 'if you love for love – yes, love me!' – beautifully delivered.
The next sequence of songs came from Clara’s husband: 'Frauenliebe und Leben'' in which, to texts by Adelbert von Chamisso, Robert told the story of a love affair from the perspective of the woman’s feelings – including a description of ‘He, the most magnificent of all’ (!) and 'An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust', on the joy of nursing a baby. Another set from 1840, Robert’s ‘Year of Song’ (during which he wrote 140 songs in the joy of their wedding year). To contemporary ears it might sound like the ultimate in ‘mansplaining’ but, presciently, it ends with 'Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan', expressing – superbly in the hands of Chen Reiss – the depth of sorrow felt by the new widow at the death of her man. It was a well-judged stopping point.
After the break we turned to Feliz Mendelssohn and his elder sister, Fanny. While Clara Schumann managed a 61-year career as a concert pianist (despite all her domestic duties and Robert’s mental and physical frailties), Fanny perhaps had her wings clipped more seriously by family expectations (Felix being the Wunderkind who must be given centre-stage) and by her own untimely death. What she might have written in a longer span or a freer social setting one can but wonder.
It seems to our age quite extraordinary that she had to publish her works under her brother’s name until just a year before her death in 1847 – although Chen Reiss with some relish told the story, when introducing as an encore 'Italien', of how Queen Victoria asked Felix to play it for her as her favourite among his songs … and he was forced to admit, shamefacedly, that it was actually by his sister. Reiss’ performance certainly justified Queen Victoria’s delight in the song, while 'Die Mainacht' gave a ravishing sense of a nocturnal early-summer walk, complete with the obligatory nightingales and cooing doves. The succeeding ‘Dusk Descended From Above’ was a most un-Wagnerian Dämmerung. Even the subsequent walk among 'Die frühen Gräber' (the early graves) did not alter the mood of peaceful introspection.
However, after Felix’s athletic Rondo Capriccioso a real storm did come in the form of Fanny Mendelssohn’s 'Hero und Leander'. Here Chen Reiss’ dramatic ability was given free rein, projecting the joy of a woman awaiting the arrival of her lover, who has promised to swim across the Hellespont for their tryst, guided by the light of her lantern. A gale whips up and, as her anxiety mounts for her safety her torch is extinguished (and yet lightning strikes give her enough sporadic illumination to see him drown) – and so she finishes in dark despair. While delighting in the artistic achievement, we may be inclined nowadays to regard such Romantic melodramas with a degree of ironic detachment (my irreverent self found itself wondering why the Leander Club named itself after someone who came to such a watery end) but it was a magnificent performance, rapturously received by the audience.
In a way, I’d like to have stopped there (or at least with the delights of 'Italien' as first encore) but that dreadful conflict in Gaza, which has seeped so deeply into our psyche over the last six dreadful weeks together with the massacres which preceded it, was suddenly brought home with the singing of a traditional Ladino Sephardic lullaby, 'Durme Durme'. This Chen Reiss dedicated to the 39 children kidnapped by Hamas on October 7. And suddenly we were reminded that some storms are very real and have none of the sepia tints of romantic convention. A truly shocking and salutary end to a tremendous evening of the finest music making.
Yuanfan Yang, piano
21 October 2023
It is tempting for reviewers to focus on the age of any brilliant young musician that they may have the good fortune to encounter, even if the question of when a Wunderkind ceases to be a Kind is unclear. (Some doctors also seem to carry the badge ‘Junior’ for a remarkably long time... .) It is certainly impressive to discover that Yuanfan Yang had written four concertos by his early twenties (with the BBC Philharmonic due to perform one on Radio 3 next June), while his CV to date includes prizes at numerous piano festivals and composition competitions.
In any case, there was no lack of maturity evident in the piano recital he gave at Claygate on October 21, either in sureness of technique or in depth of interpretation. His focused and undemonstrative presence at the keyboard was matched by his eloquent but gentle explanations of the programme he had chosen. This included a piece entitled ‘Waves’, composed in 2011 at the grand old age of 14, and there was a watery theme to much of his chosen repertoire. However, the only liquid element in his rendition of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C K330 was the fluidity of his playing, resisting the temptation to make it a bigger-boned piece than it is and yet bringing out the darker tones in the middle movement, 'Andante Cantabile'. A delightful beginning.
For the remainder of the first half of the concert (each piece succeeding its predecessors virtually without a pause) we took to the waters – or sat on the riverbank, in the case of Liszt’s ‘Beside A Spring’. After much rippling and rilling we finally came to a stillness. Our soloist’s composition, ‘Waves’, was apparently inspired by a memory of throwing a stone into water on a childhood holiday. After the initial splashes come the ripples, evocative yet elusive. Small wonder that this delicately impressionistic piece belongs to a set called ‘Three Aquarelles’. Gabriel Fauré’s ‘Barcarolle’ took us smoothly through the canals of an imagined Venice, while Debussy’s ‘Reflections in the Water’ brought us into the twentieth century and its more unsettled harmonies – a peace not without undercurrents, before the storm broke in Liszt’s ‘Orage’, published half a century earlier. All flawless, with the power of the tempest and the calmest of waterways both communicated.
Yuanfan Yang’s own description of Rachmaninov’s ‘Variations On A Theme Of Corelli’ (Opus 42) was ‘profoundly tragic’ and he followed the exiled Russian’s emotions through 20 reworkings of the early Portuguese theme ‘La Folia’ with both great rhythmic precision and sensitivity. Then came a very generous ‘selection’ from Chopin’s Opus 28 ‘Preludes’, written a century earlier by a composer in exile, this time from the Paris winter rather than Bolshevik revolution, in the Balearics rather than in the US of A.
Finally, our soloist entered more fully into ‘showman’ mode, eliciting from the audience suggestions for improvisations: ‘Gershwin in the romantic style’ (with the American’s themes occasionally surfacing from amid the lush sweep of the accompaniment); Maxwell-Davis’ ‘Farewell To Stromness’ in Ragtime dress and a double-dose of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – first romanticised and then transmogrified into a jazz song. Until we meet again, Yuanfan Yang. May it be soon. Meanwhile, thanks for a wonderful evening before a near-capacity audience.
'Lebhardt in Lieu of Lu'
4 February 2023
This year’s Oxshott & Cobham Music Society Celebrity Recital was remarkable largely for the absence of the celebrity – and for being not one whit diminished for his absence. Eric Lu informed the Society on Thursday that he was indisposed. Having 9 out of 10 fingers in working order is self-evidently not much use to a concert pianist. But neither is 48 hours’ notice of an intended absence to concert promoters, even those as unflappable and imaginative as the OCMS leadership. Remarkably, Daniel Lebhardt, who gave such a remarkable performance with Northern Chords for the OCMS in Holy Trinity Church, Claygate, on 21 January, enjoyed the experience enough to offer to come to the rescue at 24 hours’ notice. And this wasn’t just a cobbled-together recital but one which was coherent in conception and delightful in execution.
I have long been an afficionado of Haydn’s piano sonatas so it was a joy to hear his final sonata in E flat major (Hob XVI:52) played in a way which amply demonstrated its depth. It was not a bon bouche to whet the appetite for what followed but a sonata which could stand comparison with Beethoven’s own sonatas, even the remarkable ‘Appassionata’. The first movement, from its crisp announcement of the theme, never lost momentum or interest. The limping rhythm that runs through the second movement (Adagio) was matched by limpidity of tone that drew the audience into the sense of stillness magicked up by Daniel Lebhardt. The Presto Finale displayed both great precision and a certain daring in the length of pause before recommencing the action when the passage-work occasionally ceases. A sheer delight.
Thereafter, the audience was reminded that the piano is a percussive instrument as well as a melodic one. Beethoven’s 'Appassionata' was composed a mere decade after Haydn dedicated his sonata to Therese Jansen, a pianist based in London at the time of his 1794 visit, Lebhardt gave a triumphant reading of this very familiar work, using the full dynamic range of the instrument and combining brooding bass tones and shimmering effects in the upper register. The interpretation was thoroughly compelling. Beethoven spoke again and the torment that his increasing deafness provoked touched us more than two centuries later.
After that it was not just the pianist who needed a moment to relax. The second half took us to the beginning of World War One, to Alexander Scriabin’s ‘Vers la Flamme’, first performed in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city once again at the heart of conflict. The title supposedly reflects Scriabin’s conviction that accumulated heat would eventually destroy the planet. However oddball his theories, Scriabin’s obsession mirrors another contemporary anxiety. Be that as it may, Daniel Lebhardt expressed a different form of appassionata writing, a very twentieth-century angst and an ineluctable progression towards the final conflagration, all in the space of under seven minutes.
Finally, Lebhardt turned to the music of fellow Hungarian Franz Liszt and his Piano Sonata in B Minor, S.178. Memorising such a remarkable single movement would defeat the memory of most. Finding coherence and beauty across its length requires real insight. (Clara Schumann called it “merely a blind noise” and never played it in public, despite having received a copy as a gift from the composer in 1854.). The piece has no need for special pleading now, despite its difficult first reception, but it does require skilled advocacy to free it from Liszt’s reputation for hollow showmanship and to follow the full arc of the work. We could have had no better a guide to its mysteries.
By rights, perhaps the evening should have ended there. As Daniel Lebhardt said in his second curtain call, 'It’s difficult to play anything after that' – the art of understatement, one might suggest! But he relented to please the very enthusiastic audience and played Liszt’s far more gentle (and much later) piece, 'The Bell Rings' (S.238). Ironically, the church clock struck ten during the final bars. A fitting calling of time on a wonderful evening of music-making.
Northern Chords 'Down South'
21 January 2023
The piano quartet is a strange beast in the chamber music menagerie. Whereas in most ensembles players sit in an arc, visibly in harmony, held together as much by eye as by ear – through the downward sweep of the bow, eye contact or the slightest physical gesture – in the piano quartet the keyboard is set back behind the other instruments, the pianist deprived of much of that non-verbal communication, eyes fixed on score and keys except at beginnings and endings. Given the power of the modern concert grand, the potential is also there for a mismatch of forces, with the strings merely providing ‘orchestral’ colour for the soloist tinkling the ivories.
Indeed the powerful entrance of Daniel Lebhardt at the beginning of Mozart’s Piano Quartet No 2 in Eb major – the first item in the superlative recital by Northern Chords at Holy Trinity Church, Claygate, on Saturday, January 21st – set up the expectation that the piano would lead the conversation throughout. However, the ensemble (Benjamin Baker, violin; Charlotte Bonneton, viola; Jonathan Bloxham, cello) remained not only in tune throughout (with – unusually – no need to retune during the recital) but in delightful conversation, their sound balanced, blended and pure. Each player is at the top of their game and this was very evidently a gathering of musical friends.
If the piano served to provide forward propulsion in the Mozart, its role was quite the opposite in the second piece presented, a recent work by Matthew Kaner, with the piano providing, rather, atmospherics. Kaner is a London-based composer who was inspired in this instance by a cycling trip north of the border. The result was Five Highland Sketches for piano and violin. It’s a long way from other famous Scottish musical tourists (Mendelssohn in the flesh, Beethoven in his folk-song settings), with the piano-writing generally in reaction to the virtuosic violin writing. The first of the two sketches (No. 3, Snowbells) began with much use of harmonics at the very top of the violin register, all crisply delivered. The second piece chosen from the collection (No. 5, A Fireside Tale) the violin does indeed spin a yarn before bringing the set to a close. Thoughtful music provoked equally thoughtful playing.
‘Rediscovered’ scores and juvenilia often do not bear too close an examination, saying more about our desire to have more from a composer than he or she actually produced (think of the various not-very-satisfactory attempts to complete Bruckner’s 9th, the Elgar-Payne Symphony No. 3 or the completions of Mahler’s 10th). Yet, the fragmentary Mahler Piano Quartet, produced in his first year at the Vienna Conservatoire (at the grand old age of 16!) and not heard in the twentieth century until his widow found it again in the 1960s, is both a fine piece of music, its extant first movement some ten minutes in duration, and a question-mark. In a parallel universe in which Mahler never took to the podium in the concert hall and opera house, where might a career as a chamber musician have taken him – and fin-de-siècle Viennese music?
After the interval concert-goers were treated to a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor (Op. 25). Itself a work of youth (Brahms was 23 when he started it, 28 when he finished), it is also caught up in the complexities of his relationship with Clara Schumann, the pianist at its first performance. The adjectives ‘lyrical’ and ‘passionate’ certainly apply to sections of the piece. Technical challenge is not in short supply, either, but at no point did the ensemble slip. The finale in exhilarating ‘gypsy style’ brought the evening to a wonderful conclusion. If these were indeed ‘Northern Sounds’ it was wonderful to hear them down South in a concert as satisfying as any you might hear this year.
Carducci Quartet and Stephen Johnson (narrator) - Shostakovich: Life, Letters & Friendship
15 October 2022
This was a gem of a concert, ‘small and perfectly formed’. How to tell the story of one of the greatest symphonic composers of the twentieth century? By carefully chosen quotations from letters, diaries and memoirs interspersed by movements from Shostakovich’s parallel oeuvre, his fifteen string quartets.
There was no general description of the great man, nor an appraisal of how far he kowtowed to the regime and how far was a figure of resistance. Rather the first prose passage chosen plunged us into the experience of the 1937 ‘Great Terror’. What could it possibly be like to have the secret police pitch up in your apartment block, waiting with bated breath, knowing that they had come either for your next-door neighbour or yourself? (They had come for the neighbours.) After this we heard Shostakovich denounced not once but twice for the decadence of his ‘formalistic’ (and un-Soviet) writing, first following the first performance of ‘Lady Macbeth of Minsk’, then in the Zhdanov Decree in 1948. And then we heard the denunciation denounced by Stalin, not to mention Nikita Khrushchev’s pig-ignorant criticism of jazz in 1963.
It was an absurdist world in which Shostakovich operated, fraught with danger and unpredictability. Small wonder that the quartets often bubble with nervous energy and have passages laden with dark thoughts. The Largo and Allegro Molto from the Eighth Quartet in C Minor (written in Dresden in 1960 in response to seeing the ruins of the fire-stormed city) were particularly moving, placed immediately before the interval, breaking off with the tension unresolved. Running through them like the lettering through a stick of rock was Shostakovich’s ‘musical name’ – D - E flat- C - B. Yet, alongside such emotional intensity, there was, nonetheless, much which was simply joyous and a delight to the ear.
The Anglo-Irish Carducci Quartet showed the tightest of ensemble playing while allowing the rich textures of the works to emerge. The only thing to regret was the fact that we didn’t hear any work in its entirety, just one movement, or two at most. But the eleven musical examples offered gave a broad vision of his life from the dangerous days of the 1930s to the sadness of lengthy final illness.
Stephen Johnson provided a familiar voice (at least to afficionados of Radio 3) and an erudite and sympathetic interpretation of the composer. Perhaps wisely, he steered clear of ‘Testimony’, the ‘unreliable memoirs’ of Solomon Volkov, preferring to draw on Isaac Glikman’s ‘Story Of A Friendship’ as a connecting thread. Occasionally he dropped a stitch in his delivery, but the evening was a fascinating recollection of a remarkable man, a survivor who commented that if they chopped his hands off he’d find a way of holding a pen in his mouth in order to keep composing – which he did even in years when his works were banned or when performance would have been too risky.
26 March 2022
The Pixels Ensemble were due to appear at Holy Trinity church, Claygate, back at the end of March 2020. There is no need to explain why that didn’t happen. But it is said that pleasure deferred is pleasure prolonged, and it certainly was a great pleasure to finish this year’s Oxshott & Cobham Music Society programme with their recital; this one a rare afternoon concert (starting at 2.30pm). The Pixels Ensemble not only clearly know each other well (three of the members have connections with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra) but they have an intuitive understanding of each other musically, which made for a tight ensemble.
They may only be a quintet, yet their programme was really symphonic in its scope; and this in two ways. The second half was taken up by Sergei Taneyev’s Piano Quintet in G Minor (Op. 30), a monumental work, nearly three quarters of an hour long and with the richest and most varied of sound palettes. (It was hard to believe that the exhilarating finale wasn’t being played by a much larger ensemble.) This was preceded by Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 In E flat major (K449) in the composer’s own reduced scoring for small ensemble. As the players themselves explained, it seemed logical that they should complete the traditional ‘orchestral’ concert pattern of overture, concerto and symphony by starting with Franz Schubert’s brief Nocturne (D 897), also in E flat major.
The Schubert piece (possibly once intended as a slow movement for his Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat, D898) creates beauty and calm out of minimal materials. Given Schubert’s all-too-brief biography, it is certainly tempting to detect tragedy – and an anthem for doomed youth – in a work produced (possibly) in the last year of his life, especially one bearing the evocative title, ‘Nocturne’. But this was lovely and far from doom-laden playing, an adagio which led us forward gently without simply ‘drifting’. The more animated nature of the fourth section woke the audience from any too dream-like state before a reprise of the original, very simple theme brought the work to its peaceful conclusion.
The group’s artistic director, Ian Buckle, gave a fine account as soloist of the Mozart concerto, regarded as the first of the composer’s mature concertos (one of a mere five which he wrote in 1784!). The Fazioli piano, the tone of which had seemed a little bright in the upper register during the Schubert, blended better in the Mozart, with the four string players creating the ‘orchestral’ textures to good effect. Another delight.
However, despite the quality of the first half of the programme, the real focus of interest in the concert was the rare performance of Sergei Taneyev’s Piano Quintet in G minor (Op. 30). The piece was actually suggested by the Chair of the OCMS, Suzanne Connor, who introduced it as 'the least played and greatest Piano Quintet ever' So the Pixels Ensemble learned it during lockdown for this performance – clearly, time well spent. The performance amply demonstrated that they shared her enthusiasm for the piece, which had previously been unknown to them. They pronounced it 'a marvellous piece of music'. adjudging it 'completely unique' and deserving not only an occasional revival but a more enduring 'place at the top table of chamber music'. Invariably, (according to Wikipedia – so it must be true) there is a statue of Taneyev in every Russian Concert Hall. Yet, strangely, his fame has never travelled much beyond Russia, despite his importance as pianist (he played at the Moscow premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto), teacher and composer.
His Quintet certainly stands up to scrutiny – and deserves repeated hearings. The 20 minutes of the opening movement ranged across a variety of moods, all well captured by the Pixels; the forward propulsion of the Scherzo was relieved by the trio and the delicacy of subsequent pizzicato passages; and the final movement offered spectacular fireworks by way of conclusion. The audience went home with broadened horizons after such a splendid afternoon of music making. Only one mystery remained unresolved. Why are they called Pixels? Let us hope OCMS can welcome them back on a future occasion to hear the answer to that question. Pixilated they most certainly weren’t.
Manu Brazo, Claudia Gallardo and Prajna Indrawati
9 March 2022
A saxophonist, a violinist and a pianist walk into a church … In anticipation, I wasn’t convinced that that story was going to end well or that the timbres of the different instruments would mesh. But what a fabulous evening of music-making they gave the audience. Each of them clearly soloists at the top of their game, they also proved to be a very taut ensemble, attentive to each other and balancing the sound beautifully. The saxophone, in some hands, is a harsh instrument yet Manu Brazu produced a sound that had the purity of the flute in its upper register and the mellow tones of the flugel horn in its lower register. Claudia Gallardo matched his purity of tone and dexterity on the violin, while Prajna Indrawati was far more than an accompanist, both a beaming presence and a strong foundation for her colleagues’ flights of virtuosity, which took us from rural Sicily (Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana) and southern Spain (Albeníz’s Sevilla) to Lisbon, Casablanca and Algiers (Pedro Iturralde’s Memorias), before heading north to Derry/Londonderry (Kreisler’s take on ‘Danny Boy’), by way of Bella Bartok’s Romanian Dances.
The programme was titled ‘Revive!’ and was explained by Manu Brazo as being an effort to revisit and reimagine some of the ‘standards’ from the repertoire and to offer fresh hope in dark times. ‘Revive!’ is a project born of Lockdown (during which Brazo built himself a recording studio and taught himself how to produce tracks). The resulting re-imaginings and ‘re-soundings’ work well – perhaps most notably in Max Bruch’s Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (of which we heard four). The obvious adaptation would have slotted in the saxophone in lieu of the clarinet and used the violin in place of the viola, but Brazo ‘reversed the polarity’, with the lower part assigned to winds and the strings taking the higher voice. Here as elsewhere the three performers’ desire to communicate with the audience was apparent – three musicians clearly grateful to have a live audience again after all the frustrations of the pandemic.
Love’s betrayal was a common theme in the night’s first two pieces, the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana and the Spanish Dance from La Vida Breve. They are familiar enough pieces, but were notable in these performances for the singing line of the Mascagni and the panache with which De Falla’s triple-timed jota was carried off. A more straightforward affection was expressed when Brazo and his colleagues rendered their Hommage to the Spanish saxophonist and composer, Pedro Iturralde, who died during the pandemic. His Memorias (Tritico) was itself a memoir of his youthful travels on his first tour as a musician. In Casablanca, Prajna Indrawati offered a delicious walking bass to represent the city’s mid-century jazz clubs, while his return home (Retour) depicted – on Iturralde’s own account – his 'dilemma and passion for classical jazz and folk music”' Do we have to choose? Béla Bartók certainly shared the passion for folk music and heavily influenced later jazz. It showed in the six Romanian Dances, culminating in the pyrotechnics and abandon of the final Manuntelul (which scarcely needed the English translation offered in the programme notes, ‘Fast Dance’!)
Before Fritz Kreisler’s Danny Boy (Farewell to Cucullain), Brazo took the microphone to offer it as, if not a prayer, at least a call for peace. 'We need more beautiful things and less fighting in our world'. Amen to that! And the trio provided them. Haunting and gentle, the Kreisler setting brought the evening to a moment of stillness before Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás lightened the tone with its delicacy and humourous touches. Generous applause was answered by an encore, Per Una Cabeza by Gardel, which brought us delightfully to port in Buenos Aires.
26 February 2022
In a late programme change, pianist Zoltán Fejérvári dropped the advertised performance of Mussorgsky’s 'Pictures At An Exhibition', replacing it with Mozart’s Adagio in B minor (K540) and Robert Schumann’s Piano Sonata No 1 in F# minor (Op. 11), so ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ was not heard as the final counterweight to Tchaikovsky’s Seasons (Op. 37a). Nonetheless, it was hard not to be aware of events 1400 miles east of where we were seated in comfort, listening to a brilliant young Hungarian playing Russian, Austrian and German music on an Italian piano to an English audience. Sometimes music-making transcends politics; sometimes it captures the tragedy of its failures.
Fejérvári’s pianism is exemplary, technically assured but undemonstrative, letting the piano do the talking. (He said not a word all night.) In the opening Tchaikovsky work, only the briefest of pauses occurred between the twelve months depicted, each of which was ready at his fingertips immediately after its predecessor.
Whether Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries would have recognised the cycle of the Russian year from his composition is an interesting question. Only a very small minority of the Tsar’s subjects can have begun their year ‘At The Fireside’ in a ‘little corner of peaceful bliss’ or have ended it with a ball such as is depicted in December’s ‘Christmas’ waltz. The Russian lark may ascend (in March) but it scarcely soars like Vaughan Williams’ bird. The ‘Barcarolle’ (June) has its gentle calm interrupted briefly by turbulent waters. August’s ‘Harvest’, with its complex rhythms sounds like the labourers are working hard. Autumn brings Russian melancholy in October’s poignant ‘Autumn Song’. But each time Fejérvári captured the required mood, with fluid passage-work and precision.
After the interval came a relative rarity in both form and performance, Mozart’s Adagio, K540. Written in B Minor (a key that Mozart used only twice in instrumental works), Alfred Brendel called it ‘passion music as interior monologue’. Whether we might wish to refer it back to the Sturm und Drang movement of the preceding decades (it dates from 1788) or to see it as anticipating Beethoven’s emotionally-charged sonatas, Fejérvári gave a fine rendition of this rather sombre piece (and at length – with all repeats included).
Finally came Robert Schumann’s first Sonata in F# Minor, composed nearly half a century later (1835). As so often with Schumann, biography (or should one say, psychodrama?) and music are entwined. This piece he wrote while wooing the teenage Clara (against her father’s express wishes). He dedicated the anonymous manuscript to her as from ‘Florestan and Eusebius’ (the extrovert and introvert aspects of his personality). Both Clara’s audacity and her technical ability as a 16-year-old were demonstrated when she signalled the safe arrival of the work by playing it at a public concert.
The superabundance of ideas in the sonata – not least in the complex finale – sometimes seems to risk spilling over, robbing the listener of a sense of the structure (indeed, Carlo Grante has written of Schumann’s three piano sonatas that here “one might call the sonata form a ‘pathway’ rather than an ‘architecture’, as the form of these works is typically narrative, inventive, often idiosyncratic”). Nonetheless, Fejérvári proved a good advocate for Schumann, holding together the piece’s disparate elements, from the powerful opening motif through the exhilarating rhythms that burst out repeatedly in the succeeding half-an-hour of music, including moments of great tenderness in both the second movement ‘Aria’ and the finale.
Despite his restrained demeanour throughout the evening, perhaps Fejérvári’s gesture as the last note sounded was an eloquent response to what had come before: he puffed his cheeks out in release of the accumulated tension at the end of a very considerable and concentrated ‘work-out’ at the keyboard. All in all, a very pleasurable tour of some slightly less familiar territory in classical and romantic repertoire.
Castalian String Quartet with Hannah Shaw (viola)
4 December 2021
The Castalian Quartet’s name is traced in their resumé to a spring in ancient Delphi. “The nymph Castalia transformed herself into a fountain to evade Apollo’s pursuit, thus creating a source of poetic inspiration for all who drink from her waters.” So now you know. Without crediting them with Delphic powers, the quartet’s members have clearly drunk deep from those streams, as well as being technically assured throughout. The only unintentional dissonance was a certain unexpected prominence of the rich tones of the cello during the opening movement of Haydn’s ‘Fifths’ quartet (Op 76 No 2), but they were otherwise flawless and accommodated Hannah Shaw, the visiting second viola player, without a creating ripple in their sound palette.
All three works came from near the end of the respective composers’ lives: Haydn was 65 in 1797, Janáček was 69 in 1923, Brahms a mere 57 (but himself had only 7 more years to live). The two Quartets stand, in some measure, over and against the Quintet, since the bearded Brahms was regarded by many as reactionary, while both Haydn and Janáček are pushing their musical language forwards.
The late Haydn Quartet (from his last complete set) is conventional enough, with a crisp opening motif developed throughout the opening Allegro, followed by a theme and variations Andante o più tosto allegretto that deploys elegantly rather minimal melodic materials – but elegantly (and intelligently) was the word, including the halting phrasing at its conclusion. The prominent violin part was carried beautifully by Sini Simonen over the harmonies of her companions. But it is in the third movement that Haydn seems intent on bursting the constraints of domesticity. One can imagine many musical ‘amateurs’ of the day being nonplussed by the asperities thrown between the paired instruments. If it is a dance, then it is closer to a stomping Ländler than to a Viennese Waltz – though the trio relieves the contention somewhat, the first violin carrying the melody above staccato accompaniment. The final Vivace assai was indeed a high energy performance. A compelling account overall.
Sini Simonen offered a short introduction to Janáček’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ Quartet, explaining that, despite the rarity of such a close literary inspiration (a novella by Tolstoy in which a man on a train explains how he murdered his wife …), this was a poetic treatment more about “stepping into fragments of extreme emotions” than recounting the tragedy. If the Haydn pushes at the door of the 19th century, Janáček’s String Quartet No 1 reeks of the 1920s – and doubtless bears the burden of the griefs of the Great War. The Castalians negotiated the technical challenges of the second movement Con moto excellently, including the distorted sonorities achieved by playing sul ponticello. Themes refuse both to blend and to sustain and develop. It is as if we catch snatches of the dialogue but not the whole conversation.
The third movement, Con moto – Vivo – Andante, felt both spectral and obsessive. We are definitely in Freud’s century, as also in the finale, Con moto – Adagio – Più mosso – an ending but not a resolution; but the account of the disintegration was masterfully delivered by players clearly now in their prime after their apprenticeship as ‘Young Artists’.
It was the Brahms String Quartet No 2 in G maj (Op 111) which seemed an odd bed-fellow to put alongside the other two. Separating him from the others by an interval was perhaps sensible. He clearly had no desire to hasten the arrival of the Twentieth Century (and the next generation thought he had little to say). Nonetheless, the quintet was effectively presented with the aid of Hannah Shaw and, shorn of that Fin de Siècle context of artistic ferment, it makes perfect sense on its own terms. Why should a friend of the Schumanns anticipate Mahler, Schoenberg or Berg? All in all, then, a great evening of music-making.
Jonian Ilian Kadesha (violin) with Noam Greenberg (piano)
13 November 2021
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 of '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.
Spiritato! Baroque Ensemble with Ciara Hendrick, mezzo-soprano
16 October 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.
Mithras Piano Trio
18 September 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.
7 December, 2019
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.
TRIO CON BRIO
9 November 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.
19 October 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.