Lunchtime Series 23rd March 2017- Doric Quartet

All good things come to an end. The return of the Doric Quartet to Leicester after an absence of some years was the last concert of the 2016/17 Lunchtime series. It proved to be a fitting finish to what has been a very high number of outstanding concerts. Indeed, I cannot remember a better season at the Museum.

In truth , though, before a note had been played there were obstacles to surmount and I found myself in a somewhat grumpy frame of mind. Not I think for the first time in the season a gremlin had been present at the printing of the programme. I am of course not referring to changes to the programme after the printing which, of course, happen. Also, I am only too aware how with advancing years proof reading becomes ever more of a fraught occupation. However, I really do think that LIMF might improve their act in this respect.

In this context I wondered whether there had also been an omission in the programme’s biography of the quartet which began with the rather startling comment that it is the ‘leading British string quartet of its generation.’ I wondered whether the phrase ‘one of the …’ had been left out by mistake. If it was as intended, it did seem to me a rather bold assertion, given the number of fine young or youngish British quartets that have appeared in Leicester in recent years, as well as being a claim rather likely to make one listen super critically.

Well, suffice it say that such a silly frame of mind on my part was soon blown away when the quartet started playing. In Mozart’s String Quartet K589, one of the three last quartets that he wrote, it soon became clear that one was listening to an utterly distinctive group. Many quartets seek warm homogeneity of sound which in its own way can be very impressive. However, the Doric reminded me of the approach of the Lindsays who in their heyday were frequent visitors to the city. Here there was an insistence of the separateness of the individual instruments, with sharp accents where required, resulting in the character of the music emerging with great clarity. There was also a very wide dynamic range at times which revealed this Mozart quartet , particularly in the Minuet, a movement which can sound very longwinded, as having a drama that fully justified the programme note’s declaration that this was Mozart looking forward to Beethoven.

All of this is not to say that beauty and eloquence was sacrificed on the altar of drama. Time and again and particularly in the slow movement, because of the clarity of the sound, one was super aware of how all four players could mould a phrase and, so crucial in Mozart, lift it to make it sing. So, by the time we reached Britten’s 3rd String Quartet the Doric had me in their grip.

And what a performance this was! With regard to this work I have to recognise that I can hardly write with any objectivity at all. To this day fifty years later I recall very clearly the impact that the composer’s passing had upon me. A great artist’s death when there might have been so much more to come is felt to be particularly cruel. From first hearing Peter Grimes in my youth I had looked forward with enormous anticipation to each new Britten work. And now there was to be nothing more. I think it was Hans Keller who remarked that it was like being alive with a Mozart and in the years after the composer’s death his reputation, with that of Shostakovich who died just before him as being together the two greatest composers of the mid 20c., seems to have been amply confirmed worldwide. However, what made it especially hard came home to me when I heard over the radio one of the first performances of this particular work, which at once felt like having the overwhelming qualities of a farewell and yet also still showing the capacity for the creation of amazing and unique sound worlds. In that respect it reminded me of feelings that Schubert’s last masterpieces, also written under sentence of death, create. How unbearably poignant are they and yet they are also a remarkable testament to the courage of the great artist in wishing to create great things right up to the end.

Hence, if there can be that much objectivity in responding to music, and as time goes by my doubts about that possibility multiply, I have to declare there is no such thing for me in regard this work. All I can say is that the Doric seemed to me to explore every possibility offered for amazing virtuosity in both of the opening two movements and to communicate the savage ironic edge of the Burlesque which surely is a tribute to Britten’s friend Shostakovich. Equally, though, the quartet was overwhelming in the creation of the out of body world of the third movement Solo , here the first violin was simply superb,  and in the final Passacaglia they played this farewell with heartfelt simplicity and poise, bringing off to perfection its quizzical ending. Its sense of being almost a question, so typical of Britten’s constancy in refusing to sink into the maudlin or sentimental, was felt indeed to be one last confirmation of his unique voice.

A prolonged silence followed, as if none of the capacity audience wished to return to the everyday world. When they did so at last, there was a hugely deserved ovation for the quartet and the Series had ended on the highest note possible.

 

Events in April

 

The Lunchtime Series may have ended but music in the city has not. Don’t miss the visit of English Touring Opera to Curve. They bring G and S’s Patience on April 12th and Puccini’s Tosca on April 13th. In their previous visits this company has shown how these days what amazing standards can be reached on tour. There are so many fine young singers around nowadays. Indeed two years ago I thought a production of The Magic Flute amongst the best I had ever seen and I have rarely if ever come away unsatisfied.

The last concert of this year’s Residency of the Philharmonia occurs on April 22nd in a programme of Smetana, Elgar and Holst. It is conducted by Santu-Mattias Rouvali, yet another Finn of great talent, and the fine cellist Albert Gerhardt plays the Elgar concerto. I am told there are not many tickets left so if you are interested ,hurry ,hurry.

Lastly, in May and June LIMF are putting on as usual two events, one a piano recital and one a quartet concert. I will return to these later. Tickets will soon be on sale and details can be found on the website or on flyers at the Museum.

 

 

 

 

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Lunchtime Series 9th.March 2017- Kitty Whately, Julius Drake

It has long been one of the curiosities of the Leicester chamber music scene that the song recital has been something of a rarity amongst so many other delights. My experience suggests to me that this is largely down to money, arising out of the sad fact that such entertainment in Leicester risks having a somewhat smaller audience than other forms of intimate music making, even when the singer is world famous. For long I have puzzled over this. Why in a city with a fine choral tradition should a format which shows that finest of instruments, the human voice, at its most expressive not attract hordes of music lovers?

Perhaps, in truth there is something intimidating in the form’s fusion of poetry and music, demanding as it does an audience’s attention to both. In opera the stage action, the spectacle, helped to carry you forward even before the invention of surtitles. Indeed, nowadays the problem is that the latter just occasionally work against pleasure. There are a few operas where, when their libretti are exposed to the clear light of day, one finds oneself wishing that dusk would return!

However, that dusk cannot be acceptable in a song recital, where at its finest every line, even every syllable is meant to count. Of course, surtitles are rarely, if ever, an option in chamber music venues, even if, as some would argue, they were not thought to distract from the directness of communication with an audience which is at the very centre of this art form. Yet the pressure on the singer to convey and interpret detail with clarity is immense and even in this intimate setting in some of the greatest of songs the need for the singer and pianist to be true to the drama and to press it home inevitably causes words to become clouded in the pursuit of the musical line. In addition, when the words are not provided in the programme, perhaps for good reason to stop continual rustling of paper, when the song is in a foreign language unknown to most of the audience, it is perhaps not that surprising that some music lovers, even lovers of song, stay at home, preferring to listen to annotated recordings.

Of course, they are wrong and mercifully on this occasion many clearly thought they were since the gallery was well filled. As the fine recital given by Kitty Whately and Julius Drake showed triumphantly, the barriers can vanish and you find that there is no musical art form which can better communicate the very essence of human feeling. Once or twice, I must admit I struggled to grasp the moment since the words were in German or obscured in the force of the music. However, those of you who are alert to names will know that this singer has drama in her blood and by goodness it showed. When together with a pianist supreme in partnering singers, the results were predictably riveting.

From the opening Purcell songs it was clear that we were listening to a mezzo voice of velvety beauty. However, I have been here a few times before particularly in the opera house where a voice new to one impresses with its loveliness, only after ten minutes or so for one to begin to wonder where the personality is and after twenty minutes to be thoroughly underwhelmed if not bored. Here two songs in Purcell’s Dido mode were predictably finely rendered but I relished particularly the singer’s cutting dispatch of There’s not a swain as evidence of real personality. That wit carried over to a song from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn , though here and in three of Schubert’s Faust songs featuring the unfortunate  Gretchen who gets her love life so badly wrong, I would have liked the text. Not that it mattered too much in the well known Gretchen at her Spinning- Wheel in which the power of the voice was thrilling, as was the range of the piano accompaniment.

Then it was back to words in English and two composers only known to me by name, Joseph Horowitz and Jonathan Dove. The first was represented by Lady Macbeth.A Scena which set to music three of the character’s speeches  tracing the formidable lady’s course to eternal perdition. As a literary fellow I was ready to be loftily indulgent. One doesn’t attempt one of the peaks of world literature without being severely at risk. Ms. Whately cleared the stage of music-stand and score,  clearly ready to do battle, and what a battle it was. The work was in a way straightforward but in this performance minute by minute seemed to hit on music that complemented the words well and both in body and voice the singer inhabited the increasing nightmare that is the character’s world. It was nothing less than a mini-opera of considerable power. Perhaps, the music served the words rather than making one see them anew as great music does to verse but it was still compelling stuff.

And so to Jonathan Dove. I had read laudatory reviews of some of his work but there was always about those reviews something slightly condescending concerning the approachability of the music. Clearly we still live in a post Schoenberg, Boulezian world in which musicologists and some critics cannot quite come to terms with a composer who is listenable to and engaging from the off. Perhaps they feel something to be wrong if music appeals widely!

Well, all I can say is that this music seemed to me to be of real substance. Settings on 18c.love poems entitled Five Am’rous Sighs were given music that powerfully depicted lust in all its guises. One particularly noted how fine was the writing for piano; this was no secondary voice.  It was also a constant delight to hear how the singer showed once again the range of her voice and her ability to find a sound world absolutely complementing the words.

If anything, that was even more evident in settings of three poems by the American poet Edna Millay Nights Not Spent Alone , no doubt in their time startling in their explicitness. Here the music was positively haunting in the way it created not only the passion of the verse but seemed to put it convincingly in an American setting. It appeared to have imbibed that vein of American music most memorably to be found in Copland and Barber and yet to have its own personality. The powerfully sensuous performance led one to hope that a recording would be made of it.

In conclusion, thanks are to Julius Drake for bringing to Leicester yet another fine youthful singer. Thanks are to her for putting together such a richly variegated programme and then performing it with such artistry. She is clearly already embarked on a fine career.