Lunchtime Series: The Aronowitz Ensemble, 22nd March 2018

This season of Lunchtime Concerts at the Museum has been possibly the finest for many years both in quality of performance and in programmes which offer a wider range of works than can sometimes feature in Chamber Music Series. The arrival of the Aronowitz Ensemble to deliver the final concert of the season was hardly likely to do other than strengthen that impression. This ensemble has, in its variety of guises in response to change of repertoire, given some fine and intriguing concerts in Leicester in the past and this one was no exception .

The composition of the ensemble this time saw the return to Leicester of those stalwarts of our music scene, pianist Tom Poster and cellist Guy Johnston, in itself as near a copper bottomed assurance of stellar playing as it is possible to have. This time they brought with them the Dutch violist Simone van der Giessen of the Navarra Quartet and the British violinist Mathilde Milwidsky who has been receiving some fine notices recently as she embarks on her career. Thus, it was no surprise that what we got was playing of the highest order.

The concert began with the single completed movement of Schubert’s String Trio D471 and it could not have been more delightfully interpreted.  The players produced a rich sound which never cloyed into chocolate. Everything was light and airy. The phrasing sounded blissfully natural so that the blithe charm of much of the music came across fully. They also, though,  conveyed the moments  when it seemed, to me at least, that the  Schubertian world  of the last sublime works was waiting to surface and take his music far beyond charm.

This was followed by Brahms’ expansive Piano Quartet Op26. which was an experience that this listener is still rather struggling to come to terms with. Tom Poster remarked that this was a work which was one of the least performed of the composer’s early works and certainly I cannot remember having heard it either live or recorded. In addition he remarked that he would probably choose it for his desert island so the bar was set pretty high.

As I listened, a memory came into my head of when I was new to classical music. My mother and I sat ourselves in front of the radio to listen to what proved to be the last two concerts that Toscanini gave in London. He was performing all of Brahms’ symphonies, none of which I had heard before. In fact, the only Brahms I remember hearing was the famous tune from the First Symphony which introduced a BBC programme whose name was I think ‘These you have Loved’. It was a kind of Classic FM of its day . I must have thought that the whole symphonies were going to be like that for I declared grandly to Mama at the end that it was all very impressive but that I thought that Brahms didn’t write very many good tunes!

That memory has stayed with me as a warning of rushing to judgment on a first hearing particularly in regard to melody, hence no doubt it floating to the surface on this occasion. However, as I listened and after being assured by various sources that this was a genial and lyrical Brahms, I could not but think that the material of works like the Sextet Op 16 fitted that description a whole sight better. Indeed, the word ‘symphonic’ used in the programme seemed to me much nearer the mark, particularly in the very long and at times rather repetitive opening movement. The drama of  symphonic thought seemed to be uppermost in Brahms’ mind but for me only occasionally did the material of this thought seem in itself particularly memorable, at least on a first hearing. When, for example,  I heard the Sextet, itself rarely played, for the first time at an early Leicester Festival concert, I can remember being overwhelmed almost from the first note with the beauty and clear radiance of the writing.

Perhaps it is crabbed old age but that did not happen here, alas. In fact with Op 26 I found myself rather agreeing with the comment to be found in a CD Guide that the work presented problems both for audience and players. I wondered whether in regard the latter it was a reference at least in part to the difficulties of instrumental balance the work seems to create . It is well known that some have found Brahms’ quartet writing generally rather heavy and thick as it strains for symphonic weight and yet I have for example heard the Piano Quintet Op.34( i.e. a quintet with a full quartet of stringed instruments) a number of times live, and I cannot remember issues like that arising . Yet at times in this work the piano writing seemed near to overwhelming everything going on in the three stringed instruments. Indeed, the most memorable moment for me in the whole work was in the slow movement when the composer to ravishing effect reduced the sound to that simply of the violin and the cello.  To be sure there was much splendid playing throughout. The drama and energy of the work came across in the last two movements in particular and the attack was beyond praise but  at the end I was still in need of persuasion that this was one of Brahms’ most successful works. I very much fear that it would do little to alleviate the lonely misery of my desert island!  However, I promise to purchase a CD of it and then probably will find all the things that I missed first time round the block. Surprise is one of the pleasures of listening to good music.

I quite often finish by wishing all the players a swift return to Leicester and actually Tom Poster and Guy Johnston will be doing just that on May 13th. when they will be giving, together with Marina Chiche and the Bardi Orchestra, a performance at DMH of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. However, there is cause in the long term both for rejoicing and sadness. I hear that Guy is getting married this Spring and then going to America to a new job at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York State. I am sure all Leicester music lovers will wish him and his wife all good fortune and hope he will manage to return just occasionally to this side of the pond and in particular to our city.

 

NEWS

There are still in the next few months some toothsome musical delicacies in prospect. Firstly though nobody should miss the next Philharmonia Concert at DMH on April 10th with their chief conductor Esa-Pekke Salonen  at the helm. Featured is the pianist Daniel Fray playing Beethoven’s second concerto and then comes a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. For me Salonen is one of the finest conductors I have ever heard, full stop. Like for instance Mahler, Strauss, Boulez, being a composer himself seems to enable him to go right to the centre of things in a score. The result usually is an extraordinary clarity especially when he has an instrument like the Philharmonia at the end of his stick.

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Lunchtime Series: Matthew Trusler and Ashley Wass, March 8th.2018

It was some years since I had heard what I remembered as two fine artists, Matthew Trusler and Ashley Wass , so I was very much looking forward to hearing them again, this time as a duo. The programme looked to be a fascinating one, Beethoven in his sunniest of moods, Vaughan Williams at his most ecstatic and Prokofiev at his most engaging with his unique blend of the lyrical and the acerbic. In the event though, things did not turn out quite as expected.

It is true that there was much to admire in the performance of the ‘Spring Sonata’. There was a fine drive to the playing. In the outer movements there were many moments when the rhythm was precisely pointed. Performed with similar precision, the wit of the very short scherzo came across quite delightfully. However, this piece is one of those where the title attached to it surely does tell one something about the essence of the music. Much of the Sonata seems to reflect Beethoven at his most radiant, almost relaxed, and to this listener at least the duo were slightly less successful at conveying that aspect of the piece. It wasn’t exactly a hard driven performance but there were a number of moments where one felt that a more relaxed and expansive approach might have brought dividends, particularly in the slow movement. The dynamic range seemed, at least from the middle of the hall, rather narrow, very much in one’s face and the sound was often rich in the bass but slightly lacking in warmth at the top. Neither violin nor piano seemed very much inclined to really sing.

So, when one came to Vaughan Williams’ lark, one wondered what kind of ascent it would have, particularly since one could not see quite how the sense of space created in a concert hall with an orchestra could be replicated with just two instruments in a small intimate hall. Add to that the fact that at the opening of the work, as the musicians sought to establish an appropriate atmosphere, there were constant interruptions from within the audience and for a short time one really feared for the continuation of the concert. One cannot speak too highly about the forbearance of these artists in a very difficult situation as they persevered with the performance. Then, miraculously, the interruptions gradually ceased and, perhaps because of our being reminded that someone had been possibly suffering amongst us, everything really did take wing in a most remarkable manner. This was music making that seemed to touch the divine, in which the lack of an orchestra was as nothing and in which what had gone before was felt as nothing. After the ovation at the end , I thought once again of how extraordinary it is that this genius of a composer is still little known outside the English speaking world. There is a story about Andre Previn conducting the Tallis Fantasia in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic no less. It seems they were so impressed that one musician asked Previn whether the composer had written anything else. Previn , a droll man if ever there is one, is said to have answered “ Only nine symphonies.”

The rest of the concert was pure joy too. The duo clearly relished Prokofiev’s sardonic wit and flair. The pianist had some wonderful moments in the Court Dance which seemed to underline the pomposity of the dancers, the Winter Fairy glistened with icicles and at the end of the selection the Mazurka was played with such verve as to make us all, if the applause was to be believed, wonder at these players’ virtuosity. That was the supposed end to the concert but Matthew Trusler charmingly wondered whether we could spare another three minutes of our time to listen to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smiles’ from ‘Modern Times’. We could and we did. A perfect end.