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.
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.