Follow by e-mail

Showing posts with label West Road Concert Hall. Show all posts
Showing posts with label West Road Concert Hall. Show all posts

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

At Lunch Three with Britten Sinfonia

This is an account of Britten Sinfonia in At Lunch Three on Tuesday 17 April 2018

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2017 (19 to 26 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

17 April

This is an account of At Lunch Three, as given by members of Britten Sinfonia at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Tuesday 17 April 2018 at 1.00 p.m.

Thomas Gould (ThomasGouldVLN) introduced the concert, and welcomed Tom Poster (@PosterTom) to play with Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello) and him in two works for piano quartet (and mentioned the deftness of Poster's playing in the latter). The first, a world-premiere performance of a composition by Caroline Shaw, Gould described as ‘pretty beautiful’, and invited interested members of the audience to stay for the post-concert talk with Tim Watts from The University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Music.

Caroline Shaw (1982-) ~ ‘Thousandth Orange’ (2018) :

Several iterations of what seemed like it was to be a piano ostinato (the ‘very simple 4-chord progression’ to which Shaw’s programme-notes referred) began the piece. Before the material was shared with, and widened out, by the string-players, we then began by hearing them harmonizing it in different ways. Although, as a whole, the piece tended towards tonality, it did not do so simply in a sunnily emphatic way, but with edge, instruments rising and swelling - or playing pizzicato (with bowed cello) - at different tempi.

The work sounded quite filmic in its approach, and one could have imagined that it was a close reading of a cinematic short. However, it by no means needs visuals, but – as Shaw had also said in her programme-notes – she was evoking seeing, and the act of looking, and so ‘Thousandth Orange’ relaxed into the general rhythm of, and gave the impression of, different shots or alternative takes (but not at all in a Cubist way) : Maybe after the tenth, or the hundredth, or the thousandth time one paints an orange (or plays a simple cadential figure [ she differently describes that ‘4-chord progression]), there is still yet more to see and to hear and to love.

The piece had a quiet, but effective ending, with a version of the cadential figure – as envisaged earlier on – partitioned between pizzicato strings, and just hanging in the air.

As with the Brahms that followed¹, this was quality playing as of a unit, and well received by the audience : the work plays again at Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 18 and at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, on Friday 20 April, and one trusts that there will be other opportunities to hear it afterwards.

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) ~ Piano Quartet in G Minor, Opus 25 (1861) :

1. Adagio

2. Intermezzo – Allegro ma non troppo - Trio : Animato

3. Andante con moto

4. Rondo all Zingarese : Presto

Rather than reviewing the whole performance, which was excellent (and caused one person, on leaving the venue, to say that she never knew that Brahms could sound like that – almost everyone seemed to have found the work and its playing electric), here are just the written-up form of a few comments that were noted along the way.

The Allegro opens with a sun-lit statement in simple form, and we were fairly immediately in that initial lyricism that Shaw captures in her opening chords : she had chosen this work ‘as a natural partner to her new commission’². What one most wonders at is whether such a cello-line as that of Brahms could be contemporaneously written, or with such easy vibrancy or enthusiasm ?

In the Intermezzo, Gould, then Poster, could be heard to be prefiguring the Finale, and imbuing it with sadness in the repeat. In talking of the movement's exuberance, the programme-notes used the phrase ‘nervous sense of disquiet’ to say that it is kept in check ; however, the words fit better as a description of the Andante con moto, with its motif of repeated couplets, before it hints at and then builds up to grandeur, fuelled by energetic playing by Poster : eventually, out of the ashes of a huge explosion from the piano, Dearnley’s cello and Finnimore’s viola emerge and prove to have survived. (Likewise, in the Rondo, an elaborate cadenza drops down just to Gould's violin³ - imagine Brahms, as a man of 28 (exactly a year after Clara Schumann has given the premiere), making his playing and compositional début with this piece in Vienna in November 1862 !)

As the piano part established itself again, the other instruments could be heard, modulating beneath its harmonic forms : one keenly sensed that Brahms has a massive compositional structure at this point, which he is keeping aloft, until he finally pulls away into a close.

The Rondo started with lively string-tones and with Poster’s piano luminous in its upper register, but soon descended to just keyboard, with then the addition of pizzicato strings. We may know Brahms’ version of Hungarian from [his orchestration from piano four hands of ten of] his Hungarian Dances, but the most enduring theme here is a stately progression of chords in a theme of orchestral proportions - as is often said of this work as a whole, which Schoenberg indeed took the trouble to orchestrate.

Not maintaining this head of steam that he has built up, Brahms lets some of the pace off, as he can be heard doing in the Symphonies or Concerti, by adopting a dance-form (a waltz ?) – prior to that dramatic cadenza, mentioned above, very shortly before the end of the work, and in the context of a summative visitation of the principal themes, en bloc, before some fast playing. He still has time to be meditative once more, however, until an onward current of piano notes drives us to the conclusion, and an even-faster passage that makes what passed before seem like a canter.

Tremendous acclaim met this thrilling playing of an exciting piece – as the audience-member remarked, this was a Brahms that she did not know !

End-notes :

¹ Except when Caroline Dearnley momentarily seemed to be awaiting overlong a cue, from Tom Poster, that he was ready to come in.

² Shaw is quoted, in the programme’s introduction, as saying This new piece for piano quartet is a kind of deep dive into my own memories of rehearsing and performing Brahms’ Piano Quartet as a violinist.

³ Albeit quickly joined by the other string-players.

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

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

A concert with The Endellion String Quartet : Beautiful Brahms, and somewhat baffling Haydn

This is a review of The Endellion String Quartet, playing Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

15 March

This is a review of a concert given by The Endellion String Quartet at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Wednesday 15 March at 7.30 p.m.

It has to be said that, when none of the string quartets on the programme (except perhaps the Mendelssohn ?) could be thought of as the core works of repertoire (though that makes it an inevitability that, for no good reason, a composition such as the Brahms A Minor is too little heard), The Endellion String Quartet clearly has a dedicated ‘fan-base’ [] : there must easily have been more than 300 in the audience in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (@WestRoadCH), so who says that there are no big audiences for chamber music… ?

Programme :

1. Josef Haydn (1732–1809) ~ String Quartet in E Major, Op. 54, No. 3

2. Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) ~ String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80

3. Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) ~ String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2

The Endellion String Quartet : Andrew Watkinson (1st violin), Ralph de Souza (viola), Garfield Jackson (2nd violin), David Waterman (cello)

Haydn ~ String Quartet in E Major, Op. 54, No. 3 (1789)

1. Allegro

2. Largo cantabile

3. Menuetto : Allegretto

4. Finale : Presto

The Haydn of the string quartets seems influenced, here, by his symphonic writing. The Allegro opens with a pair of balanced bars, and then fast writing for first violin (Andrew Watkinson). Eventually, we are into territory that is serious, and, no longer with an appearance of graciousness, which is characterized by an ascent that, through being staggered by backwards steps, is not a scale : on the way up, or descending, it is impliedly modulating as it goes. The movement is in sonata form, so we hear anew, in the light of what has just preceded, material with which we are already familiar.

In the following movement, marked Largo cantabile (but which seemed to have some of the qualities of a Scherzo), Haydn gives another orchestral theme, a hymn-like one, in which we may hear a marching motif. Next, before the opening material recurred, darker tones from the second violin (Garfield Jackson), which were expansively worked on by his fellow violinist, Andrew Watkinson, and with a virtuoso feel to the string-writing.

The opening theme seems to be subjected to some brief variations, before the darker tones return, and then more of the virtuoso style of the first violin, but which seems to become increasingly out of tempo with the measure that the rest of the quartet is beating - almost as if 'Papa' Haydn is depicting a state of inebriation ? This curious quality to the quartet continued with the Menuetto : Allegretto, which had a strange opening figure, and then set the first violin, with quirkily spiky gestures, against the other players.

In turn, the gestures became even more quirkily accented. Rather than have, per se a Minuet followed by a Trio section, Haydn gives us, after a rather odd Menuetto, an Allegretto that seems curiously dislocated, and almost as if his composition is assembled around dance-like rhythms. The Finale : Presto opens with the three instruments other than the first violin, and then, when it enters (in a lively and open way), we perceive it as distinct, again, from the trio of other instruments.

Even so, this movement seemed most like what one expects from Haydn, when writing for the forces of string quartet, and he uses, as his driving force, the sort of chirping that one gets from repeated notes and trills. He takes us into the minor, and is then modulating, as the work draws to a conclusion – with the strong impression, still, of the first violin as a maverick loner.

When, next, Andrew Watkinson spoke from the stage (from and for The Endellion String Quartet ~ @EndellionQt), and then we heard him play in the Mendelssohn, it became quickly apparent that the character of the first violin part is not his, but Haydn’s.

He had been addressing us to draw our attention to the next concert, on Wednesday 26 April 2017, and to commend both the work by Anton Arensky to be performed (the String Quartet for Violin, Viola and Two Cellos in A Minor, Op. 35), and the fact that, needing a second cellist (and only one violinist), Laura van der Heijden (@LauraVDHCello) was to be a guest perfomer. The following Tweets refer…

Mendelssohn ~ String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80 (1847)

1. Allegro vivace assai

2. Allegro assai

3. Adagio

4. Finale : Allegro molto

The second string quartet in the first half, for knowing which a debt is owed to The Coull Quartet (when they¹ played at Cambridge Music Festival in around 2004), began with a nicely-judged combination of sensitivity, passion and tension, so much so that sitting back and listening to the music, rather than – concentrate the mind and one’s hearing though it does – doing so with much eye to review-notes, seemed recommended. In the concluding bars, which were suitably vigorous, Mendelssohn completes the overall impression made by the Allegro vivace assai.

The second movement (marked Allegro assai) has been anticipated in the first, and was boldly played, but not excessively so, and so one could enjoy the lugubrious bass-line, with Mendelssohn’s murky colourings. As the opening material recurred, it was with a quality of insistence to it, but only to give way to a reappearance of the quieter mood, and, after some tail-notes and pizzicato playing, ending pianissimo.

The Adagio has a quietly reflective, and restrained mood. To it, we heard contributions made by low cello-notes (David Waterman), as if in a sadly thoughtful vein. The cello takes its place hesitantly in the general section, but as if then using patterns of notes to stir itself. The movement became enlivened and impassioned, but these feelings subsided, and it came to a very quiet close.

Mendelssohn builds his Finale from tonally ambiguous material, as well as prominent gestures, and The Endellion Quartet created a texture that swelled from placid to turbulent. Though they are very differently written and characterized from those in Haydn’s piece, it also has passages for the first violin against the trio of other instruments. One really did feel this as Allegro molto, pushing onwards, expressively and, in doing so, rhythmically – a final movement that is so full of drama that it is a conclusion without fully seeming like a resolution for all that we have been feeling.

It was a true pleasure to hear this work again live, and in such a strongly felt performance.

The auditorium of West Road Concert Hall

Brahms ~ String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2 (1873)

1. Allegro non troppo

2. Andante moderato

3. Quasi Minuetto, moderato

4. Finale : Allegro non assai

Prominent in the opening of the first movement (marked Allegro non troppo) was a long held note from David Waterman (on cello) before we moved into the ‘sunny’ and airy material, with pizzicato cello, that makes this composition shine - especially with The Endellion String Quartet sounding so well together, with a very good ensemble.

Seamlessly, Brahms takes us back into the (sometimes) tempestuous initial theme, with its bold statements, and fluidity in the writing, which is as compelling as in the better-known Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34 (although his string quartets generally receive less attention than they deserve). With the recurrence of the more cheery theme, his emphasis is on the viola (Ralph de Souza), before - as if at the end of a complete work - the movement closes very definitely.

In the Andante moderato, the cello was again to fore, and the players and their sounds in perfect balance. The measured development had a suspensive, shy start, and then, led by a strong line from the cello, a passage marked (at least) forte, but which Brahms lets dissipate (as he might in the symphonies).

Ruminatively, and sotto voce, the writing seems – or, rather, makes us – unsure about which key it is in at any time, and as if it dare not decide. Then, a measured, lingering cello-line, appearing to be tempting the other instruments ‘to talk’, and which so brings about a small crescendo. Via rhythmic patterning from the cello, and then a passage of high notes on its upper string, we are brought to a soft close, with viola pizzicato.

The slow movement, an Adagio, begins – as did one in the Haydn – with twinned sets of assertions, here feeling to be delicately placed into the aether, before we move into a fast, and lighter, section that resembles a fugato. A cascade of notes develops, flowing between the instruments, but with Brahms moving us so cleverly between sections that it seems quite natural and casual. Cello-notes and a few sympathetic strokes bring the movement to an end.

At the start of the Finale (an Allegro non assai), the first violin, before passing the material to the viola, is answered by the cello, which, before we have a reprise of where we began, leads to some fugal writing. Another cello-line, again high up, was introduced to join sounds made by gentle strokes from the other players, just before Brahms evokes the opening of the work, and then, with some vigorous pizzicato, brings it to a spirited end.

A hugely enjoyable evening with these insightful players, and who are playing works, written within ninety years of each other², that are much in need of an airing !

End-notes :

¹ Do quartets like to be 'they' or 'it' ? (It rather matters more to try to please than whether it is ‘The company is’ or ‘The company are’, except by striving to be consistent.)

² Even with different ideas of adulthood, and reaching maturity, two of these composers could never have met as adults (Mendelssohn was born in the year of Haydn's death), and Mendelssohn and Brahms barely so, but the music passes between them...

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

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

A collection of Angels and Saints, curated by Bojan Čičić

This reviews a concert by The Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Bojan Čičić

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

18 November

This is a review of a concert given by The Academy of Ancient Music, under the direction of violinist Bojan Čičić, at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Wednesday 18 November at 7.30 p.m.

The concert was being recorded by the BBC for later transmission on Radio 3 (@BBCRadio3) (on Monday 23 November : available to listen to for 30 days), so we had Martin Handley on the stage at West Road Concert Hall (@WestRoadCH), Cambridge, introducing the items, and sometimes stopping to interview Bojan Čičić (@BojanCicic), who was leading The Academy of Ancient Music (@AAMorchestra), about features of the programme that he had devised for the concert*, which made for a fascinating element of the evening**


1. Vivaldi (1678–1741) ~ Concerto for Violin in F Major
2. Vejanovskỷ (1633-1693) ~ Sonata in D Major
3. Vejanovskỷ ~ Sonata in C Major
4. Vivaldi ~ Sonata in E Flat Major
5. Leclair (1697-1764) ~ Concerto for Violin and Strings in D Major

6. Manfredini (1684-1762) ~ Concerto in C Major
7. Biber (1644-1704) ~ Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin
8. Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in E Major
9. Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in D Major

1 Antonio Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in F Major Per la solennita di San Lorenzo

1. Largo – Andante molto
2. Largo
3. Allegro non molto

The rather sombre mood of the opening Largo broadened into a tutti section with the Andante molto, full of graciousness. It became immediately clear that Bojan Čičić’s immense technical facility was being employed for purposes of expressiveness, and, as ever with AAM, it was a pleasure to hear a clear bass-line from Judith Evans. The solo writing had Čičić giving a skittering effect on violin, as well performing fast passages (not for the only time in the evening), with a smaller group of players.

The Largo felt very triste, and almost looked inward as some of Bach’s fugal writing for solo instruments can feel to do : the sadness was soulfully placed and centred, without sentimentalism. Vivaldi gave the violin some bird-like passages (another of the programme’s recurring themes), before the other instruments came in and, with the organ (Alastair Ross), drew to a close.

The closing Allegro non molto began with variant forms, a bit like a round, of a falling motif, and then, when Čičić came to make an explicit statement of the material, there were more bird-like bars heard, and one came to appreciate how cellist Joseph Crouch was often operating in a block with David Miller (on theorbo) and Judith Evans (on bass). A highly virtuoso run for Čičić exemplified his phrasing, and his control of pace and energy, as the concerto was nearing its end, with a singing line for the soloist, where he came in and out of prominence.

2 / 3 Pavel Josef Vejanovskỷ ~ Sonata in D Major Sancti spiritus and C Major Paschalis

We had been directed to Giovanni Gabrieli by our programme-notes, and there was a definite feel of ‘courtliness’ in this music, whose open-soundedness was also reminiscent of that of Claudio Monteverdi : almost necessarily, because of the purpose for which these Sonatas had been written, they were oriented to the celebratory, and always had the effect of the ensemble in mind.

4 Vivaldi ~ Sonata in E Flat Major Santo sepolcro

1. Largo molto
2. Allegro ma poco

Returning to Vivaldi, the Largo molto gave us an accreting group of players, and, as it took shape, did it remind somewhat of his Opus 8 (Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione***), Concerto No. 4 in F minor, ‘L'inverno’, RV 297 ? There was a simplicity of line, but it was held steady and supported by Čičić’s direction, and the movement came down to a very quiet end. The Allegro ma poco, in nature a fugue, was characterized by Vivaldi’s use of repeated notes, and the piece seemed to appeal on the general level of emotion more than directly musically. It also put one in mind a little of the fugal writing (from the Kyrie eleison)of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor, K. 626 (incomplete from 1791).

5 Jean-Marie Leclair ~ Concerto for Violin and Strings in D Major, Opus 7, No. 2

1. Adagio – Allegro ma non troppo
2. Adagio
3. Allegro

The Concerto began with a clear statement of its material, here using the organ to build up its effect. Nonetheless, it felt that Leclair was initially holding much back, despite contributions made by the theorbo and notes from the organ. Later, a sense of warmth and inclusiveness had emerged in the writing of the Allegro ma non troppo, although there were still little moments of harmonic tension.

Čičić was provided with some lively playing, especially when we had reduced to the four violins, and Leclair next gave those strings some paired entries, before we heard him rising through the keys. In a solo section, we had the clear sense that this player was serving the music, and not himself, and the complex nature of the writing makes one wonder who the original violinist was (and wish to find out what is thought).

The relatively short Adagio, with its clock-effect, felt as though it owed to Vivaldi’s Opus 8 (please see above), whichever of that Concerto, or Concerto No. 3 in F Major, ‘L'autunno’, RV 293, it may be. The concluding Allegro gave the impression of the soloist building virtuosity with the other instrumentalists, and there was a sort of keening, with a bird-like quality, in the cadenzas : there was the clear idea that Leclair envisaged the soloist shining with this writing, and one could also appreciate the attack that Miller (theorbo) and Crouch (cello) brought to their playing. With the developing bird-tones (which seemed most like a cuckoo ?), Leclair showed us his sense of humour – which was rather silly, but still funny (as Python can be), and the AAM did it very well.

* * * * *

6 Francesco Onofrio Manfredini ~ Concerto in C Major Pastorale per in Santissimo Natale, Op. 3, No. 12

1. Pastorale : Largo
2. Largo
3. Allegro

It is well worth giving this Concerto Grosso an airing, as it is usually eclipsed by that of Corelli, whereas it is more reflective, and trying other things. (Apparently, if larger forces had been available, Čičić had been contemplating Locatelli’s version of such ‘Christmas Concerti’.) The first two movements, which seem to help make us ready for the relative exuberance of the third, both ended with quiet gestures / cadences on theorbo from Miller, and Ross (on organ) and Evans (double-bass) both underpinned the ‘suspensiveness’ of the central Largo.

Marked Allegro, the closing movement signals that apparent exuberance in yet more bird-like calls, before the very fine writing for violin takes us into flourishes and arabesques. The piece ends thoughtfully, and we might be reminded that the first Sunday in Advent this year is at the end of November.

7 Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber ~ Passacaglia for unaccompanied violin (which concludes ‘The Mystery Sonatas’, for Violin and Continuo)

In tackling this demanding Passacaglia, which impressed those members of the audience at West Road who were not already thoroughly impressed, Čičić brought out its liltingly rhythmical character, underneath its expansively developing form : now as a completely solo performer, his playing occupies the air, and speaks to us through its violinistic excellence, rather than to claim (or exert) power.

In conversation with Handley, he said how the Passacaglia is unusual for the time, being amongst the earliest writing that we have for solo violin, and, in this as in playing the piece, one was aware of Čičić’s keen, but unassuming knowledge and understanding of music from this period. (Inevitably, as one had listened, one thought also of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, and forwards in time to Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin.)

8 Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in E Major Il riposo

1. Allegro
2. Adagio
3. Allegro

From the start of the Allegro, there was a patent oddness in the muted string-sound that Vivaldi requires, especially in the section when we were without the recognizable trio of instruments (cello, theorbo, and double-bass), with the impression of ‘thinness’ / ‘wateriness’ being appropriately otherworldly, if the repose does echo a status of being written for the feast of the nativity : meaning and expression were always foremost.

The mood of tranquillity continued with the lovely ambience of the Adagio, a musical feeling of suspension, to which David Miller’s quiet plucking of the theorbo added. The Allegro had a distinct chirpiness about it (perhaps on account of the narrative in the gospel according to Luke ?), as well as a reflective side, and a violin passage seemed to bring in what felt like very good-natured rejoicing (at the virgin birth ?). Yet there was also a passage of suspension in the playing of the familiar trio, keeping us off, until ready, for the quiet close.

9 Vivaldi ~ Concerto for Violin in D Major S. lingua di S. Antonio di Padova

By the time of this final work in the concert****, one was fully aware both of how tight the ensemble was, and, from the Allegro's first cadenza, how much Bojan Čičić was enjoying playing*****, as well as directing AAM (@AAMorchestra), by gesture and by nod. The communication between the instrumentalists was clear, with taut, attentive first and second violins (respectively, with Čičić, Rebecca Livermore, and William Thorp and Iwona Muszynska), as well as the very familiar face of Jane Rogers, on viola, on the other side of the chamber-organ. The second cadenza showed Čičić continuing to have a good time with this Concerto, which felt not only natural, but spontaneous and alive.

The scene was being set, in the second movement (marked Grave), for the conclusion of the work, but it had its own poise and grace, and Čičić was no less impressive for that, both as director and violinist : in the Allegro, he showed great confidence and assurance in establishing a forceful pace and beat for its opening, and then turning to the kindred material for the solo part.

AAM showed that it was really together under his direction, and with his excitingly taking choices for clarity and for the nature of the work’s expressiveness. As has been said, it was clear that the audience would have gladly heard more from this director and orchestra, but it was not to be on this occasion.

As is usually possible at West Road (@WestRoadCH) – as is also true of York Early Music Festival / National Centre of Early Music (@yorkearlymusic) or at King’s College Chapel (@ConcertsatKings) – a chance to congratulate Bojan Čičić on his playing and leadership, and to express the hope that the exposure, here and on Radio 3, might bring greater recognition for him as a soloist (though he did point out that we are talking about the world of baroque violin, of course).


* The first of four performances, the others being at Milton Court Concert Hall, London, on 20 November, at Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, on 25 November, and at Hall for Cornwall, Truro, on 26 November.

** It was also interesting to see how the emphasis and even some of the information differed between Handley’s presentation and the content of the AAM programme-notes (which, unusually, also did not provide RV numbers (for the works by Vivaldi)).

*** It is a great shame that more attention is not given to all twelve Concertos in the set.

**** There was ample enthusiasm for an encore, but maybe none had been prepared, or some of the AAM players needed to get away ?

***** In its real sense, where ‘to enjoy’ and ‘to rejoice’ have common origins – not the more vacuous sense in which, most often when being served something, one is nowadays seemingly unceasingly enjoined to ‘enjoy [it]’. [It seems that, in some places (such as, some are still discussing such matters as what words mean – and why.]

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

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)

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

A musical Academy in Cambridge - other than the Academy of Ancient Music...

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

1 July (updated 4 July)

This review is of some highlights of Britten Sinfonia’s (@BrittenSinfonia’s) / Britten Sinfonia Academy’s lunchtime concert at West Road Concert Hall (@WestRoadCH), Cambridge, on Tuesday 1 July (At Lunch 5)

Strix, Philip Cashian’s difficult new piece for chamber orchestra, premiered at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge this lunchtime, with five members of Britten Sinfonia supporting, encouraging and (in the person of violinist Alexandra Reid) directing the twenty-four-strong force of its Britten Sinfonia Academy : Cashian himself, briefly spoken to afterwards to thank him for his piece, thought that they had played it pretty well.

In rehearsal, at West Road, under Alexandra Reid's direction
(by kind permission of Britten Sinfonia)

One could soon see why it was paired, for a slightly smaller group, with the opening movement (Marche introduction) of Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes (from 1942) : the Stravinsky had been played beautifully, in a lively and sometimes spiky way, and with a cheeky ending, and Cashian’s work, of around twelve minutes, started in its orchestrational and rhythmic spirit, with a prominent triangle-note that led quickly to a pizzicato section, and to the unbowed cellos and double-basses coming to the fore, an exciting sound against the background of their fellow strings.

The next section melded oboe, flute and clarinet, forging a cry that echoed the roots in a compositional workshop that Cashian had held with the Academy players in the modern gallery-space of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum (@FitzMuseum_UK), and which had resulted in the young players’ responses to Graham Sutherland’s bird-based painting La Petite Afrique III (1955)*, whose writing Cashian took away and used in Strix : bassoonist Katherine Worster, in one of three interviews that Reid conducted with Academy instrumentalists during stage-movements, told us about how this process had worked, and how it had seemed strange to encounter what Cashian brought back to the group, after he had composed the piece away from them.

This cry, as it emerged, continued with the pizzicati lower strings, but with the intensifying use of syncopation, a prominent aspect of the piece, and one which placed demands not only on the players to keep count in bars of differing time-signature, but also on percussionist Tim Gunnell, who here, as at other times, had to provide a clear, regular beating : the feel was of the Stravinsky, who had been better known since Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) for his approach to rhythm and metre (a ballet that the programme-notes reference in relation to Walt Disney and Fantasia (1940)), and even of the jazz vibe that he used around this time**.

A pleasant nod in Igor’s direction, but the tock-tock that Gunnell then brought forth was taking us on, elsewhere – to the more irregular measures beloved of Sir Michael Tippett, with Claire Cormie now switched from flute to piccolo, and with the piano’s percussive quality ably laced into the mix by Alex Little (whose excellent technique had been evident earlier in an excerpt from Schubert’s famous Piano Quintet in A Major (D. 667)). With wood-blocks and high piccolo to the fore at the top of the sound, Little’s part shifted to a motivic role, with the rest of the ensemble delivering nicely jerky cross-rhythms, into which the angularity of bass-drum entered in.

The metrical nature of this composition, and of its emphasis on on the element of percussion, was by now evident. Cashian now, three times at least (but just for a fraction each time), gave us a momentary hiatus in the very impressive ensemble of professional and younger musicians : the percussive beating, which had returned, and the prominently and excellently played trombone (from Katherine Surridge), alongside Sinfonia’s Paul Archibald on muted trumpet, thrillingly halted, allowing us, perhaps, an unimpeded heartbeat.

Once more, triangle sounded, heralding a slowing – probably physiologically, as well as emotionally, for players and listeners alike… Again, we had Cormie’s flute, paired with Thomas Mullock on oboe, and with a feeling of suspension soon added by Little, and by Imogen Ridge (a Britten Sinfonia Academy Associate) on harp. Again, the sensation of a heart a-beating, before a transition to a different constellation of oboe, harp and trumpet. Maybe we sensed that we were nearly through, but the return of the pizzicato section, double-basses and cellos up front, clinched it : with a variation in the pattern of tones from the wood-blocks, the piece came to a sudden end.

And to very appreciative applause for this energetic and enlightening partnership, between older and newer, in an adventure in music !

Other highlights :

* Claire Cormie performing confidently centre stage as flute soloist, ringed by cellists, in Bachianas Brasileras No. 5, a well-worn path (comprising, in short sonata form, an Ária followed by a Dança) - not least as performed by Sir James Galway on his album Annie's Song (for which he made his own arrangement, for flute instead of soprano voice) - but sounding fresh, and with Caroline Dearnley's lead with the pizzicato (who is no doubt an inspiration to the seven younger cellists (not all playing full-size instruents as yet))

* Alexandra Reid's interview, both with Cormie, and with Joseph Cowie, who had just played double-bass in the extract from Schubert's unusually scored Piano Quintet (please see above) - it was a delight to hear Joe saying how playing a chamber piece had taught him that the visual cues between players are as important, if not more so, than what one hears one's fellow musicians doing : for the listener in the hall, watching that communication (be it nods to come in, or smiles at some lovely moment) is a valuable part of concert-going, just as seeing the bright joy that illuminates even, say, Dearnley's face (as a well-established member of the Sinfonia) at passages or turns of phrase that are clearly favourites (please see below)

In rehearsal, in advance of the concert at West Road
(by kind permission of Britten Sinfonia)

* A good choice of opener, the Coriolan Overture of Beethoven (Op. 62, from 1807) gave one the chance to observe Sinfonia and Academy players working together in solid repertoire as an ensemble - as well as hearing the piece not for massed forces or in the context of the all-too-frequent overture / concerto / symphony type of programme, but leading into some chamber pieces

* If any of the Academy's string-players were able to hear Britten Sinfonia's programme with Patricia Kopatchinskaja (as director and violin soloist, in Cambridge on 3 March 2014), they would have been able to feed into their gestation of Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances (from 1915) for this concert not only her 'unstraight' performance, but also her enthusiasm and passion for this music : needless to say, the suite was played with less of Kopatchinskaja's wildness, but movingly, with energy and delight (which one could see in Dearnley's smile), and with Reid's patent encouragement as director***

* Finally nailing that little tune, which marks the hours / divisions between segments of Radio 3's (@BBCRadio3's) Through the Night (and is only played marginally more frequently than Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 In F Minor (Op. 21) (which one can reckon on hearing, during this sequence of broadcasting only, at least once per week !)), as the opening of the last movement, the Madrigal - Nocturne, from Darius Milhaud's suite of film music (along with that of Honegger and Désormières) for La cheminée du roi René**** (1939)


* With a strong resonance in Francis Bacon’s architectural approach to, in particular, his later work.

** As exemplified by his Tango, for solo piano, from 1940 (or, more simmeringly, in his Ebony Concerto, written for clarinettist / band-leader Benny Goodman in 1945).

*** It may be scored so, rather than being Reid's doing, but one could several times see three other violinists near her taking a phrase in turn, after her lead, in the solo part.

**** Which the programme-note translates, as if unambiguously, as 'chimney', although the word means 'fireplace', when used within a property...

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