More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
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1. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) ~ Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914¹) [4 players]
2. Mark-Anthony Turnage (1960-) ~ Prayer for a great man (2010) [2 players]
3. Oliver Knussen (1952-) ~ Cantata for oboe and string trio (1977) [4 players]
4. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) ~ Introduction and Allegro (1905) [7 players]
5. Turnage ~ Col (2016) [8 players]
6. Stravinsky ~ Concertino for String Quartet (1920) [4 players]
Stravinsky I ~ Three Pieces for String Quartet (1914¹)
(1) Vibrant tone-colour from Jacqueline Shave (1st violin) and vigorous pizzicato on cello (Caroline Dearnley) characterized the first impression of the work, with Miranda Dale (2nd violin) making lively interjections in the brief Danse. Even so, we hear that Stravinsky’s writing is of a contrasting nature, and – in the overall somewhat atrophied sounds of the opening bars of Eccentrique – is juxtaposing inertia and lyricism. Before, that is, the intense flowering of the development section, and a return to this quirky form of spikiness, and the opening material’s serving partly as punctuation, partly as an ending.
Last, sensitively rendered by the violinists and more mournful, Cantique resembles a less-uninformed version of Beethoven as processed in Strauss’ Metamorphosen : quicker, but a mutated theme. Again, the writing relies on a contrast between passages and their affective colouring, but evoking a memory that is rooted, not in nostalgia, but in grief.
Turnage I ~ Prayer for a great man (2010)
(2) Prayer is uplifted, and positive, if stoic – it is, as with the preceding work, a fascinating blend of sounds, those of cello and of the horn – Martin Owen – with all its connotations of the martial, the inward, and the rustic. As the short piece progressed, we were aware how Caroline Dearnley’s freely-flowing cello-line worked with the latter : in the string legato, melding tones, although there was a deliberate, gentle mismatch with the horn’s timbre. A final, muted, section perhaps seemed to speak of adieu, or farewell.
Knussen ~ Cantata for oboe and string trio (1977)
Before Oliver Knussen’s instrumental (3) Cantata, the statesman-like tone and appearance of Nicholas Daniel (later, in a post-concert workshop (with / for Jago Thornton’s prize-winning composition), maybe less so ?), who said that we could expect to hear some of the instruments in tempo, others playing ‘out of time’ : as he put it, Strict, but flexible – parenting, I suppose ?
Nicholas Daniel also told us that he favoured – over Knussen’s own account of the work – when Knussen had shared, with Sinfonia players, that it is ‘like a series of diary-entries’, but ones that are technically connected. Compared with other works, rehearsing this one had apparently been more intense, but also more rewarding, and, although Daniel says that he is usually hesitant to say the word ‘masterpiece’, he promised (not wrongly) that Cantata was one - and jewel like…
Characterizing – or trying, and failing, to characterize – the mood or feel of such diary-entries, when Knussen is deliberately being holistic with them, would not let his work be the centre-piece that it was of this superbly wrought and planned Sinfonia recital. Here, the incalculably strong overall effect of a moving entity, comprising people and a feeling of place, of being placed into the timeless eternity of Time :
As one would know from typically thoughtful Sinfonia programming, pairing how the Stravinsky ends with Turnage’s reaction to the passing of his father-in-law naturally fits with Knussen’s conception of Cantata - with all the changeability that we are aware of with, say, Bach’s portraits of the facets of the seeking of a soul in penitence [counter-tenor Robin Blaze with BWV 170, Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust], or Handel’s Un’alma inamorata, HWV 173 [Mhairi Lawson, with La Serenissima (LaSerenissimaUK)].
Or, of course, it could be Handel’s much more famous and beautiful da capo aria Lascia ch’io pianga [Almira / Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno / Rinaldo], or Bach’s even more famous Erbarme dich, so beautiful where it comes in St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) : at such times, what is Time ?
Ravel ~ Introduction and Allegro(1905)
Maurice Ravel, though, has a radiance that is rarely outshone, and so we aptly heard next, in the familiar (4) Introduction and Allegro, his feeling for poesie and fantasie in the intensity of an imagined world : in the first harp solo, it became very clear that Ravel, in being commissioned to write this work to show off a new make of harp (pace Donald Macleod on Radio 3, that self-same day, with the evening repeat of Composer of the Week [#COTW]), is scoring in the spirit of writing for piano.
Further on, and starting with the delicacy of the cello (Caroline Dearnley), the other players (Miranda Dale and Clare Finnimore) joined her in pizzicato to accompany Jacqueline Shave's bowed violin, before another gorgeous, rapt harp solo from Lucy Wakeford. With the ensemble embodying faerie and fruitfulness, we came to the flowering and fecundity of the Allegro section – with the very lovely phrasing of Lucy Wakeford, who was given a well-earnt accolade by her fellow Sinfonia performers.
Turnage II (1960-) ~ Col (2016)
A tradition in music of The British Isles that goes back well before Elgar’s variations presents portraits in music (of a sort, Façade (1918-1923) is also one). Unfortunately, this is what Mark-Anthony Turnage does in (5) Col, in a piece that starts in open terms, but becomes first ruminative, and then – with or at the return of that initial material – becomes downright maudlin.
This is unlike the spirit of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin (1914-1917), Arvo Pärt in In memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977), or Stravinsky’s Epitaphium (Für das Grabmal des Prinzen Max Egon zu Fürstenberg) (1959), for flute, clarinet and piano, [or Double Canon ‘Raoul Dufy in Memoriam’ (1959)], and, rather, a requiem that is yet a birthday cake, but which serves as neither : though it is imperfect, one may be better hearing Colin Matthews the man, by watching Barrie Gavin’s Colin Matthews at 70 [seventy minutes or so of film about Colin Matthews, as screened at 2016’s Aldeburgh Festival of Arts and Music² (on which, see more, below)]…
Stravinsky II ~ Concertino for String Quartet
NB The programme-notes (by Jo Kirkbride) credit the (6) Concertino as dating to 1952 – having wondered about this, and then checked more authoritatively than on the Internet³ [Wikipedia®], the Concertino actually dates to 1920⁴, and its arrangement for small ensemble to 1952…
Given that L’histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) (1919) was from the year before 1920, it seems to endorse the comment above that one can hear hints of that work here. The Britten Sinfonia String Quartet plays the Concertino with aplomb : they happen, all, to be women, but the important point is that they are excellent musicians and communicators, and it is by their quality, not their gender, that one would commend their musicianship⁵.
Starting from a high level of excellence, Jacqueline Shave, Miranda Dale, Clare Finnimore and Caroline Dearnley keep on impressing...— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) February 14, 2017
In this work, as brought out here, the motivic elements underlie, but do not belie, its meditative qualities – the recapitulation that we heard was brimful of feeling, and tacitly contradicts a conception of Stravinsky as cool and unemotional. Just as did, one reflects, this string quartet with the Stravinsky piece(s) with which it / they opened a tribute to Louis #Andriessen at Milton Court last year (at The Barbican).
¹ Please see the note at the beginning of the section (below) for the second Stravinsky work for string quartet (and its dependent end-note⁴).
² One way in which the Festival is on a human scale is that, during the interval of a concert that had featured Matthews' work last year, one had the informality to address him on the stairs - to shake his hand, and briefly thank him.
@lucieskeaping @yorkearlymusic Kindly signing my York programme didn't give that impression - scary being on air at St Margaret's !#Coughs— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) January 1, 2017
Sadly, at some more 'protective' venues - unlike, for example, The National Centre for Early Music (NCEM / @yorkearlymusic) - one may not approach performers, even though they are just a small distance away (though not evident, stewards are there to prevent it) : those on stage have to be at a signing, or otherwise choose to come out into the foyer, for approaching them to be permitted.
³ In Roman Vlad's monograph entitled Stravinsky, pp. 79-81 (Oxford University Press, London (1978)).
⁴ With Three Pieces for String Quartet, it initially seemed that they were written in 1914, revised in 1918, but probably not published until 1922.
Roman Vlad (ibid, p. 50), after saying ‘Although very little known, these pieces are extremely significant as far as Stravinsky’s stylistic development and inner artistic motivation are concerned’, and then devoting several pages to them [in which, by analysing them, Vlad explains their importance to Stravinsky's and other composers' works], goes on to tell us (p. 54) :
Stravinsky himself was always greatly attached to [the Three Pieces], so much so that in 1917 he transcribed them for orchestra under the titles of ‘Danse’: ‘Excentrique’ : ‘Cantique’ [my emphasis] […].
⁵ On which point, initiatives such as Holly Tarquini's F-Rating (F-Rated (@F__Rating)) at Bath Film Festival (@BathFilm), or Cambridge's Reel Women (@ReelWomenUK), might take pause ? [Unless, of course, one claims that inclusion in a programme at the latter, or the former's Festival, is an absolute guarantee, per se, of outstanding quality.]
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)