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Friday, 24 July 2015

Czech classics in Cambridge

This is a Festival review of Melvyn Tan and The Škampa Quartet

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

24 July

This is a review of a concert given, as part of Cambridge Summer Music Festival, by Melvyn Tan and The Škampa Quartet at West Road Cancert Hall on Friday 24 July 2015 at 7.30 p.m.

Cambridge Summer Music Festival (@cambridgemusic) has, in years past, given opportunities to hear both the Quartet and Melvyn Tan one well remembers the latter in Messiaen (Quatuor pour la fin du temps same page-turner !), and in a piano recital (also at West Road : @WestRoadCH) and the former at The Union Society (@cambridgeunion), and here they were together !

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Beethoven ~ Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109

Janáček ~ String Quartet No. 2 (‘Intimate Letters’)

Dvořák ~ Piano Quintet No. 2* in A Major, Op. 81

The review begins with what is most immediate in one’s mind, where Melvyn Tan (@Melvynbetan) and The Škampa Quartet played together

Antonín Dvořák (18411904) ~ Piano Quintet No. 2* in A Major, Op. 81

1. Allegro, ma non tanto

2. Dumka : Andante con moto

3. Scherzo (Furiant) : Molto vivace

4. Finale : Allegro

The huge scale of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 (in A Major, Op. 81) (from 1887), is necessarily influenced by the scale of the quintets by Schumann (1842) and Brahms (1864), and its principal themes will not fail to be known to and impress us.

So Dvořák gives us one of his telling melodies on cello, before it is passed to the first violinist (Helena Jiříkovská) : we could not only see, later, Melvyn Tan’s facial pleasure at how she rendered it, but also smiles from Adéla Štajnochrová (second violin), Lukáš Polák (cello) and Radim Sedmidubský (viola) at playing this music from their homeland, which they were going to develop for us with commitment and verve :

Into the structure of the movement, Dvořák inserts dance measures, and we hear him, through them, reaching to make a grand assertion with the material. Then, when Polák brings back the theme, it is controlled, with piano set against it, and Tan goes on to punctuate and facilitate the movement, with the music revealing itself, and its expressive potential, in the repeats, and with the intervallic leaps giving us a sense of reaching for the stars.

The scoring seems to use the piano and the quartet as if they are desks of instruments in an orchestra, ranging the former against the later, and, in the rise and fall, do we hear echoes of the composer's symphonic sound from the late 1880s / early 1890s ? (It is a different approach from the more integrative one of Brahms, but with the same orchestral possibilities at work.) With the sound of the piano closing the movement, there was a strong feeling of excitement in the ensemble to be performing this work.

At the opening of the second movement, Tan placed the theme before us with articulation and great delicacy, and then, as the others handled it, continued to do so in the capacity of embellishing and enriching it. We are a little reminded, by a melodic line in the cello part, of the slow movement of the Schumann quintet, and then Dvořák lulls us, again and again, into a restful state with each time that the piano restates the initial theme.

New vistas open with a feeling of holidaying (or journeying), and, with an undercurrent from the cello, of traversing summer meadows. Very tender playing from Polák, with the merest of gestures on violin, brought in a section of enchanted quietude : the other players were profoundly hushed as he played tremolo writing with a powerful strength of feeling. Then, full of energy, a new motif, and Tan’s face said it all, as that motif turned into a modified form of the theme. Just before the end, the holiday mood resumed, and so did the magic, in this respectfully unhurried and quiet music-making almost a lullaby.

Albeit in proportion to the rest of the work, this is a biggish Scherzo**, and it is almost an anthology of themes, with the same feeling of yearning / journeying. This was playing with every appearance (though we know the hard work that it belied) of effortlessness, and Dvořák makes us feel a measure of ease, though he is shifting the tonal centres, and also playfulness, with Tan giving us a profound legato, echoed by the string-players. That moment of yearning briefly recurs, before the use of variation-form reminds us of the Beethoven Piano Sonata, and the Scherzo closes with very definite, clear strokes.

The Finale is written with, and was played with, graciousness and also propulsive force, and Dvořák subdivides, by sounding the violins against the cello and the viola : the stage arrangement chosen, with the first violin to audience left, and the viola to the right, was good visibly, but also separated the voices here. Rhythmic patterns are used in the scoring, as well as little, playful gestures of the notes of another key, and the effect of small pulses.

As the Allegro moves, it develops into a fast, modulating fugue with a lively piano voice, but then bringing back a theme from an earlier movement. The harmony becomes ambiguous, and there is a play-fight of a tussle as to where we are rooted, before reducing to a hush, for a simple statement on violin, to which the other strings add descending figures.

They provided exceedingly quiet harmony to a piano passage, before what must have been one of the softest sections of pizzicato ever. From there, first violin Helena Jiříkovská took the lead, but, with competing material that desired to come to the fore, Dvořák left us guessing right to the closing bar to see how he would end this thrilling, lively piece.

One took great pleasure in and in hearing this work, and was most impressed both by the integration of all the players into the work, and by the deployment of what Ralph Vaughan Williams (in praising a performance under Sir Adrian Boult) called a true pianissimo (or ppp). The Festival audience was abundantly happy to have finished the varied programme with this compelling playing, where attention had been intense all round.

* * * * *

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) ~ Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109

1. Vivace ma non troppo / Adagio espressivo

2. Prestissimo

3. Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung. Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo

Melvyn Tan (image from

Performances vary as to whether the two sides of the first movement are ‘run together’ with another in that of the second movement, but these so-called five (or six) ‘Late’ sonatas are their own kind of beast : probably, one guesses more (as one listens), not because Beethoven only came technically to think in terms that broke the mould at this stage in his life, but because, as Bach was, he must have been aware of his legacy, and could dare to say the things that had been in his heart for a long time ? [For CRASSH (@CRASSHlive) in January (also at West Road), Murray Perahia’s compelling analysis of, and guided performance with The DoricString Quartet (@doric_quartet) of movements from, the original form of Beethoven’s Opus String Quartet Op. 130 revealed the roots of his thinking, and of his future-proofing compositions.]

Melvyn Tan, who saluted the one nearest to him, clearly had not seen before the distended urns, bearing plants with green foliage, that had been arranged at either end of the piano : as they did not disturb him, they served to give a certain balance to the backdrop of what can, visually, be an exposed stage at West Road. As is usual with him, he seems to catch himself as much as us by surprise in starting to play, i.e. without any grand preparation of holding the arms aloft above the keyboard :

He threw us straight into something that causes us to ask what Schubert (17911828) would have made of this theme (or of the use of variation form ?) he whose mere thirty-one years alive were, apart from the last twenty months, coincident with when Beethoven was alive (17701827 : as we do not always realize ?). Beethoven gives us here with typical, and undimmed, Beethovenian fire, drive and energy a mix of feelings and techniques straightaway, with a great sense of balance, and of modulation, momentary touches of great beauty, and the hands gradually separating to the ends of the keyboard.

In all this, Tan felt immensely prepared, but not to have premeditated the exact interpretative choices that he brought to the performance which is what one values so much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score except that it was always going to be rhythmically very live, and played from the inside outwards.

A Schubertian theme of tenderness (or Schumannesque, ahead of its time ?), which was right at the outset of the Andante, Tan repeated slightly more softly. Pacing the playing as if it were breathing, he brought out its quality as a chorale, and, emphasizing some of the not obviously significant internal lines, led us into the variations : the heart of the matter, infused by dance-forms, and also with wonder at what the world might have made of this music at the time...

If one had judged by appearance, and been unable to hear Tan’s playing, he did not look at ease, and one would not have imagined that he was creating such a beautiful, appropriately precise sound much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score as part of which, as the variations progressed, he also brought out some spikiness in the writing. In working on Beethoven with The Doric Quartet (as mentioned above), Murray Perahia talked about a moment when, to try to paraphrase the religious conception that he evoked, Heaven comes to meet Earth, and we had that feeling from Beethoven here much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score and then building to an expansive treatment.

Yet, at root (as with, say, The Goldberg Variations), all that development comes back to a simple statement, and then further decoration / ornamentation, in which we hear Tan exposing the full feeling within this sonata, and enwrapping us in it : we are willing it on, to where we hear it to be going, and he is maintaining our engagement, by keeping something back. It is, though, in a simple statement again that Beethoven, through Tan, seeks a conclusion, with much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score reminding us of the chorale element much in his approach, the sense of freedom within full facility with the score a nigh Lutheran, quiet close to this thoughtfully vibrant interpretation.

* * * * *

Leoš Janáček (18541928) ~ String Quartet No. 2 (1928) (‘Intimate Letters’)

1. Andante Con moto Allegro

2. Adagio Vivace

3. Moderato Andante Adagio

4. Allegro Andante Adagio

The Škampa Quartet (but one got away, Adéla Štajnochrová) : Radim Sedmidubský (viola), Helena Jiříkovská (first violin), Lukáš Polák (cello)

The opening Andante sees paired violins against, first, viola in an extreme Sul ponticello, then cello : in all this, there is the assurance of mastery of language and form from, especially here, Radim Sedmidubský (viola) and Lukáš Polák (cello). Propelled by writing for the latter, the work opens like a flower, but one that is both vibrant (energy, passion, enthusiasm, from Janáček and his interpreters) and, at the same time, shy and delicate, exemplified by an almost imperceptible Sul ponticello passage from Polák. Throughout, the members of the quartet are communicating to each other, as well as to us, links in its episodic structure, where it moves from a slow and reflective feeling of the rhapsodic to intensity. Brought in by quiet writing for viola and touches from the violins, the movement came to a high, bright close.

The Adagio starts with sinuous writing for viola, which passes back and forward with the second violin : we hear not only the full, rich sound of the quartet, but also Janáček’s pleasure and skill in writing for what is best in the viola. Beginning with very fast figurations for lead violin, the Vivace is heartfelt in its harmonies, but there are also ambiguous notes and discords as it progresses to the rhythms of a march or dance, there is the ambivalence of Will it, won’t it ? to the mood.

We noticed the quartet’s careful use of a range of dynamics, and how contributions to the dialogue from the viola are a significant part of the work***. It is with a sensation of inner irresolution (in some version of Janáček whom we fictionalize having all these experiences of mood- and thought-patterns) that we conclude.

Led by first violin Helena Jiříkovská, the third movement has a formal, but not icy, tone, before sounding triste and regretful. Just for, initially, a short episode, it is like a folk lullaby – when, after other material, it recurs, it is quieter, but with intensity and feeling in the realisation. With an element of squeakiness (from the score), the violins quietly proceeded, but, then, the players are on full, with an alternation of a dance and a firm pulse. With a highly energized section, from which a frenetic version of the lullaby emerges, and we come back and back to its theme, it is as if the music (as art is sometimes thought to be) is therapeutic. Janáček seems to be seeking a soft resolution, and, twice, ushers in an open sound, although it is to be with the end of its outbursts that it is over.

As we had been used to, The Škampa Quartet brought overwhelming musicality to the familiar theme with which the last movement asserts itself then, a quiet interlude, before a little moment of fireworks, and resuming the theme, now full and clear. Still, all is not well with the interaction between the inner and outer in this work, and Polák had some stark statements to make on cello, and there are tensions in the harmony, and with keys and rhythms pulling against each other.

A first use of playing pizzicato (first the viola, then the two violins) led into a ‘jogging’ line for cello, of which the violins were then mimetic. In this, a sense, still, of unease and even pain, and a reduction to a very gentle dynamic. However, there is no way except up, and then all four elements of the quartet in several bars’ worth of a hugely scratchy, amorphous character : it is to resume, louder and longer, but, before it does so, the viola gives us the big theme. On the edge of our seats with the emotion in the viola part and somewhat as with the Dvořák quintet (please see above) we are asking where does / will / can this music end.

But end is what it forces itself to do, and we know that we have heard what offers great understanding of this soul-searching piece : Yes, factually the players are Czech, and share that with the composer, but they really felt, on some quite different level, to be magnificently in tune with this repertoire, and to have done far, far more than entertain us with it : taking us into their world.

For now, the review ends there, with a continuation / completion to come...


* Wrongly identified, in the Festival programme, as Piano Quintet No. 1, which was Dvořák’s Opus 5 (in the same key) : although he destroyed the manuscript soon after, it did have a premiere, and one understands that it was having borrowed a copy to revise the work, fifteen years later, that caused him to write anew, and produce this masterpiece in the tradition of those already mentioned.

** Not unlike the scale of that, marked Andante, of Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B Flat Major, Op. 99 (D. 898) ?

*** Maybe it was an instrument favoured by Kamila Stösslová, who (despite being a married woman who did not return his feelings) corresponded with Janáček for many years, and was with him when he died ? (We understand that she was Janáček’s inspiration for Kát'a in Katya Kabanová, the vixen in The Cunning Little Vixen, and Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Affair.)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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