Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen 20th October 2016
After their triumphs in the Festival I looked forward with surprisingly modified rapture to the swift return to the city of those fine artists Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen for the second concert of the Lunchtime Series. This featured Bach, Rubbra and Schumann.
We all hear music differently and we all have preferences but, when referring to the two greatest of composers of the first part of the 18c. and declaring my preference for Handel, I have been in the past subject to withering glances. Of course, I realise that Bach is worshipped like few other composers by people whose judgements are to be mightily respected and as it happens I do enjoy many of the master’s works. However,I have come to realise that colour and direct human drama are often central to my enjoyment. In a way Bach is perfect but too often in performance I seem aware of the wonders of a world akin to mathematics, a world which I struggle to enter, of a great mind exploring all the possibilities of musical material. I remember Raymond Leppard , who long ago pioneered the revival of an interest in Baroque Opera, once on television exploring a Bach work and at one moment in his inimitably wry manner remarking that Bach being Bach could not leave well alone.
In the 20c Edmund Rubbra presents me with similar problems. At one point I bought a number of CD’s of his symphonies and chamber works and was at times impressed, but it passed. Something about the music’s intense seriousness made it pall and recently, whilst reading a CD booklet, the reason became clear to me. The composer went on record as seeing colour as a secondary feature of music and a dense highly wrought structure as crucial to significant achievement. This for me results in a palette that is quite often beautiful but with too little dramatic variety.
And yet in this concert things turned out rather differently, not least because it showed how two great artists can transform the listening experience. Rubbra’s Oboe Sonata, perhaps because of the pre-eminence of the bright wood wind, sounded quite unlike anything else I had heard of his. It has something of the composer’s luminosity but also a clarity and bounce not always found in his music. The slow movement had a limpid quality and the last movement an ear catching vivacity. One wonders whether the well known sparkling personality of its dedicatee, Evelyn Rothwell, had something to do with the nature of this music.
Schumann’s Three Romances is the composer at his most intimate. No musician has given greater luminosity to the domestic life and in a loving and affectionate performance both artists took one into the centre of that personal world.
And so to Bach, who book ended the concert with two sonatas. Here pleasure was complete. One was struck by the fact that , perhaps like Mozart, Bach is one of the composers most difficult to get right in the playing. Some performances concern themselves with lucid structure and finish up sounding like a metronome. Others import an alien expressiveness which sounds and is false. Both artists here managed to find a middle way which was compelling. Charles Owen is an artist always seeking to be as true to the composer’s world as he can be and here he managed to combine a clarity with inflections which gave the music a dancing vibrant life. Nicholas Daniel simply dazzled in his ability at times to send a phrase floating in the air like a feather without impeding the flow one bit. Quite astonishing. I think I still prefer Handel but..!
Lendvai String Trio November 3rd.2016
Not having come across this group before, I assumed that they would be playing in the Leicester Lunchtime series for the first time. Diligent research, however, revealed that two members were also part of the fine Aronovitz Ensemble and hence no strangers to the city at all. Another reason why String Trio groups are rarely household names was revealed by the cellist of the Trio , Marie Macleod, when she remarked that the form had never been very popular amongst eminent composers and hence the repertoire was limited. Interestingly she thought this might be because the form was more difficult to write for than the quartet and she suggested that one reason could be that with four instruments the harmonic base could be provided by three, leaving the fourth to do ear- catching things!
On the evidence of this concert she would seem to have a point in that only a great composer at full throttle would seem able to grab the attention. Now, Schubert is a great composer yet there really was little in his early String Trio to make you guess such to be the case. Much of the music seemed clearly designed for pleasant evenings with friends and in this perfectly well mannered music one could only occasionally guess what mighty stuff was to come. Once in the second movement there was a passage that broke through to much deeper things and the last movement had a blithe tune which had all the Schubertian fingerprints. The Lendvai Trio played it all with great affection and style. However, it was in the Beethoven Opus 3 that their quality as an ensemble really shone through.
Here they were really splendid in the way in which they were ever alert to the mercurial qualities of this extraordinary work. I had forgotten just how extraordinary it was. Significant composers’ early works are often viewed as the precursors of the great things to come. Here Beethoven has already broken the mould of the Age of Enlightenment. Good manners are thrown out of the window. The work is full of challenging stops and then dartings off in completely unexpected directions. Mischievousness, lyricism and fierce energy sit side by side. The Ledvai String Trio managed these challenges with great artistry. Time and again the range of the dynamics finely characterised the changes in atmosphere , their playing had great rhythmic impetus and where, as in the slow movement, they were required to sing out, the tonal blend was at times superbly rich. They had the complete measure of Beethoven’s early masterpiece.
November 8th. James Murray comes to talk to The Leicester Music Society about the German 19c. composer Albert Lortzing. 7.30 Clarendon Park Congregational Church, Springfield Road.
November 11th. The Philharmonia is in town with the Spaniard Jaime Martin, making his debut in the city as a conductor in a programme of Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony. The fine Latvian violinist Balba Skride is the soloist in the Brahms concerto. 7.30 DMH
November 17th. Chroma will be playing French works for strings and harp. 1.00 The New Walk Museum.