Concert Reviews 2019-2020
OCMS Review of the Wihan Quartet – Holy Trinity Church, Claygate – February 22, 2020
It is a widely observed phenomenon in popular music that bands of a certain age have an identity crisis when they reach a certain age and one or more of the members wants out, leading to their replacement by other, fresher faces. On the evidence of this performance the Wihan Quartet have weathered that particular storm with great ease, preserving their cohesiveness as a unit even with the departure of both the founding lower parts after approximately three decades in their respective roles. Indeed their ‘new’ (2017-vintage) cellist, Michel Kanka, played a wonderful role as anchor especially in the first of the works performed in their Claygate recital, Smetana’s String Quartet No 2 in D minor. His senior, Jiri Zigmund (who joined to play viola in 2014), likewise contributed to the rich textures and rhythmic accuracy that characterised their playing throughout. Whether occasional re-tunings between movements were also due to their acuteness of ear or to the vagaries of a damp winter night in Surrey, I’m not sure.
The choice of repertoire led us through some interesting emotional terrain. Smetana, who famously included the onset of tinnitus in the last movement of his first quartet, wrote his second after the full-blown ‘catastrophe’ of total deafness and in the throes of a final illness sometimes attributed to syphilis, writing in short bursts against doctors’ orders. (Perhaps it might be subtitled: ‘Life After Deaf’, although that life was to end in a Prague mental asylum little more than a year after it’s completion). Both the compositional history and Smetana’s inner turmoil show in the somewhat disjointed nature of the first movement, while a recurring chromaticism in the presto Finale shows that we are approaching the limits of romanticism’s conventions. Nonetheless, polka and trio both dance in the second movement, while the storms are moderated and confidently paced in the succeeding Allegro (non più moderato ma agitato e con fuoco). Angst does not yet have the last word, as it might have done a generation later in Vienna.
By contrast, the Russian composer, Borodin’s Quartet No. 2 in D major is thoroughly well-mannered and domestic (possibly a twentieth anniversary present to his wife). It does not set out to make profound statements or to question the way things are. In the first movement, the Wihan players certainly enjoyed the conversation, as the lengthy main theme was passed around between them. The light-hearted scherzo lives up to its name, with fine pizzicato punctuating the Wihan account (just as the last movement, Andante – Vivace, proved their technical mastery. But it was the third movement (familiar to many through its re-use in the musical Kismet or as a stand-alone orchestral ‘lollypop’) which provided the most sumptuous (and familiar-sounding) moment of the evening: simply, undemandingly enjoyable.
After the interval, we returned to the Czech lands (and to the key of D minor) to listen to Smetana’s musical heir, Antonín Dvořák, in his Quartet No. 9 (Op.34). If this was also a ‘domestic’ work it had none of the air of gentle satisfaction expressed by Borodin. The whole work was written in 12 days under the impact of the death of three infant children in two years. The rocking rhythms of the opening Allegro’s opening give place to a polka which stays resolutely in the minor. Only in the Adagio third movement (its sumptuous textures lovingly explored by the Wihan’s players) does the music rise into the major key – but remains introspective and troubled even in its tranquillity. It takes the Poco allegro of the fourth movement to open the composer’s way to a more hopeful future – and all that was to flow from his pen. The Wihan’s players mastery of rhythm (and their enjoyment of each other’s musical company) was once again clearly on display, provoking warm and sustained applause from the audience – itself rewarded with a generous encore: a spirited rendition of the sunny Finale of Dvořák’s American Quartet (Op.96).
Review of Eric Lu’s Recital for Oxshott & Cobham Music Society
Holy Trinity Church, Claygate – December 7, 2019 (3)
Eric Lu came and went saying not a word in this eloquent recital, preferring to let his fingers do the talking. Only a stiff formal bow (and perhaps a hint of a smile at the end) acknowledged the enthusiastic audience’s applause. But that was the only thing which was stiff in his fluent performance. In fact, we felt like bystanders – albeit very privileged bystanders – in his conversation with the keyboard, his head often at piano lid level as he hunched over the instrument.
The only criticism I would offer was that he left little space between the works for us to absorb the beauties he set before us. I would love to know whether the mere 20 second pause between the opening Brahms Intermezzo in E-flat major (Op. 117) and the Schumann Ghost Variations (WoO 24) that followed was meant to make some point about a personal connection (two valedictory works written 38 years apart) or was merely his crisp way of moving on from one terrain to another.
With Brahms and Schumann it is arguable that ghosts (or demons) are an inevitability. Schumann wrote his last published work on the edge of madness and before-and-after his suicide attempt. In Brahms’ Six Piano Pieces (Op. 118), which closed the first half of the concert the composer’s love for Clara Schumann still lurks in the background (and, indeed, in the foreground – on the title page, as dedicatee): Molto appassionato (as in the opening Intermezzo) after all these years! But he also offers in succeeding movements crystalline purity, dancing rhythms and (in the fifth piece, the Romance in F major) a fluidity of form which suggests the atmosphere of the bars in which (according to dubious legend) the youthful Brahms played to earn his beer-money.
But while it’s possible to underline the elements of valediction and past regret in all these pieces (not to mention the old slur against the elderly Brahms that he was ‘reactionary’), careful listening reveals hints of the impressionism being developed by Debussy in Fin de Siècle Paris and a great rhythmic and harmonic freedom.
The second half of the concert was taken up by Chopin’s 24 Preludes (Op. 28) – an ideal piece to showcase Lu’s technical mastery in (literally) every key. The flawless moto perpetuo (Prelude No. 3), the animation shown in the supposedly desolate Prelude No. 4 and the extraordinary fluency of No. 16 (‘presto con fuoco’) all stood out for me, though the final Allegro appassionato was perhaps more powerful than beautiful.
The encore, Schubert Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat major (Op. 90, D.899) was perfectly chosen as an antidote to that forceful ending – limpid, delicate, with the most exquisite singing melody.
A really marvellous performance – but please, Mr. Lu, a little more time to enjoy the inner silence your craftsmanship instils would make all the difference.
Trio con Brio
Joseph Haydn: Piano Trio in C major, Hob XV:27
Anton Arensky: Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, Op.3
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Trio in B flat major, Op 97
No-one attending the concert given by Trio con Brio Copenhagen, could possibly fail to recognise that the publicity concerning their musicianship and technical ability was not overblown or inaccurate. This was a stunning concert. From the beginning of the Haydn, one was aware of the tremendous rapport between players. The music was allowed to flow between instruments; melodies or themes being taken up and passed on with no-one trying to shine as an individual, thus creating a seamless flow and interchange. Nevertheless, one could not help being aware of the tremendous technique of the pianist, Jens Elvekjaer, whose sole job seemed to be to dazzle, create and re-create the brilliant lively theme with rapid fingerwork, occasional trills, scale and arpeggio passages which are a feature of this piece.
Solo opportunities however, abounded for the violin and cello played by the two sisters, Soo-Kyung Hong and Soo-Jin Hong in the melodic lines of Arensky and also Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio. Sweetness of tone in the upper passages of the violin writing were spell-bindingly soft, whilst the sadness of the main melody in the slow movement of the Arensky was deeply felt, conveyed by both stringed instruments with sincerity and great beauty.
Their performance of the "Archduke Trio," -Beethoven's final piano trio, -filled the second half of the programme, arresting one's attention with the magnificent main theme of the first movement, and then the delicacy of staccato and light-hearted first theme of the second, alternating between lyricism and mystery in the middle section. The Trio gave an exemplary performance of the work, bringing out the reflective qualities of third movement's theme on which variations were based and in the final movement leading to an exciting climax. The audience loved it and greeted it with cheers and, although it was a long programme, wanted more.
The Trio finally offered a slow and reflective movement from Dvorak sending the audience home more than satisfied with an excellent evening of music.
Only the second of the seven concerts this season and already we have had two wonderful programmes!
What will the winner of the Leeds Competition offer us? I can scarcely wait!
The Pixels Ensemble
Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op 47 (1842)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor, K478 (1785)
Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor, Op 60 (1875)
The evening opened with a splendid and entertaining illustrated talk by Roy Stratford, who lectures at the Wigmore Hall, and who is really multi-talented. The way he illustrates works both on the piano and by recordings, is so clever. All three works that we were going to hear were covered. As usual, Roy’s talk was entertaining and inspiring.
The works were all piano quartets, played by an outstanding group, ‘The Pixels Ensemble’, who all individually had very high credentials. The works were, in order, Robert Schumann’s in E-flat major, Op 47, Mozart’s No 1 in G Minor, K478 and, after the interval, Brahms’ No 3 in C Minor, Op. 60.
As explained in Roy’s talk, Schumann’s work, from the Romantic period, was much influenced by the composer’s mental illness, and his reliance on his wife, Clara. The four movements, Allegro ma non troppo, Scherzo molto vivace, Andante cantabile and the Finale: Vivace, were given inspired treatment with zest and thoughtfulness, as appropriate, and received enthusiastic applause.
The Mozart, with three movements: Allegro, Andante and Rondo: Allegro, demonstrated the contrast between the classical style and the romantic style of Schumann. I’m very fond of Mozart’s operas, and some of the symphonies, particularly K550 (No. 40), and the Jupiter, No. 41. All of the canon, of course, displays the composer’s astounding genius in the classical era. The quartet was quieter that the Schumann, naturally, but the skill of the performers was, once again, fully evident, and the audience fully enjoyed it.
After the interval, we heard the Brahms, perhaps the most impressive work in the concert, being later, and a fitting finale to the evening. I hadn’t known that Schumann had been a benefactor of Brahms, or that Brahms had an affection for Clara Schumann. Whilst Robert was in an asylum, Brahms stayed with Clara, but left when Robert died. It was surprising that he didn’t stay to comfort her; perhaps he was too upset.
Nevertheless, the third movement was like a love letter to Clara, whom he never saw again. The performance was, again, outstanding, and the performers were given even more enthusiastic applause, bringing them back for their final bows.
This season will have performers that are all at the peak of their profession, and the first was an example of what’s to come. Roy Stratford will be giving another talk before the fifth concert, on 22 February, when we have a string quartet playing works by Smetana, Borodin and Dvorak.