Brodsky Quartet at Kings Place * Overtures galore from Victorian and Edwardian Britain * Delius from Norway * Schubert and Hummel from Finchcocks
Classical Music Editor STUART MILLSON savours a varied musical menu
Kings Place, the newest concert-hall in London, welcomed a capacity audience on Wednesday 15th January for a performance by the world-renowned Brodsky Quartet – Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton, violins; Jacqueline Thomas, cello, and Paul Cassidy, viola – four of the finest chamber musicians now at work in this country. The Quartet is named after the violinist Adolf Brodsky, to whom Tchaikovsky dedicated his Violin Concerto, and judging by their immaculate, profound sensitivity – as much as to one another’s playing as to the audience which came to hear them – they are the modern custodians of a great musical heritage.
For chamber music in London, you naturally think of the gracious old Wigmore Hall in W1, Cadogan Hall near Sloane Square, St. John’s, Smith Square, or the Purcell Room on the South Bank. Kings Place, a thoroughly modern venue, seems to combine elements of all four: the magnificent, shiny woodwork which clads its well-designed interior making for what must be the perfect acoustic for chamber music. And yet there is nothing small about this hall: somehow, there is a great sense of space – enough room for a quartet and for a chamber choir and ensemble in a Bach cantata. The Brodsky Quartet performed as part of the Kings Place “Chamber Classics Unwrapped” series, music chosen from the many nominations and favourite pieces of concertgoers; and it is a tribute to the visionary approach of the hall’s Chief Executive, Peter Millican, that popularity and audience choice has produced, not safe, “everyday” classics, but a challenging, unusual and exciting repertoire.
The first work – a gentle invitation from a much earlier age – was Purcell’s Fantasia of 1680, a Dowland-like melancholic meditation, pristine and beautifully articulated by the masterful Quartet. Here was an arcadian English landscape, or perhaps an evening of music played in a country household of the time – with candles and shadows, and people absorbed in their own thoughts. Twentieth-century and exactly contemporary music followed: Henning Kraggerud’s Preghiera (2012) – Middle-Eastern influences mixing with the baroque – and then the wildness, twists and tension (with stark, sinister pizzicato) of Bela Bartok’s five-movement String Quartet No.4 of 1928. Despite his febrile imagination, with themes seething as in an inescapable nightmare, Bartok always seems to find room for ideas that are almost pastoral or nocturnal – think, for example, of the unusual moments of wistful nostalgia, ghostly quiet, or folk-melodies in the epic Concerto for Orchestra. Such moments of semi-reassurance can be found in this extraordinary quartet. The concert concluded with another five-movement masterpiece: the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132 by Ludwig van Beethoven. In Beethoven, Bach, Mozart – the listener finds the building blocks of music; the compass points from which all the others take their bearings. Beethoven’s works are pieces of endless invention, vivacity and passion, and then with almost religious moments of heavenly peace – all conveying an inner authority and sonority. Nowhere does this depth and noble heart manifest itself than in his late quartets.
For those who have never really cared for chamber music, I say this: think again. Go to Kings Place, and hear performers communicate with an audience – bringing what is often perceived as a sombre, sparse, intellectual experience into radiant life. But a very different experience awaits you in the form of two CDs, from the Chandos and Somm labels – Overtures from the British Isles (Chandos) and British Opera Overtures from the Victorian era, conducted by the great opera conductor, Richard Bonynge. Somm’s Victorian overtures are a delightful journey through a part of the romantic era long forgotten: how many people know of composer, Julius Benedict and the 1862 opera, The Lily of Kilarney, or John Barnett’s The Mountain Sylph, which dates from 1834? And then we discover William Vincent Wallace, with his Amber Witch, followed by the overture, She Stoops to Conquer by George Macfarren, a one-time principal of the Royal Academy of Music. Recorded at Urmston Grammar, Manchester (a perfect acoustic for these rousing and colourful works), the specially-created Victorian Opera Orchestra is probably about the same size as a conventional, provincial opera-house ensemble, but sounds rich and full-sized on this disc, with good percussion and brass. Somm’s CD booklet is also delightful, the company using reproductions of theatre programmes and theatrical posters from the mid-19th-century – items from Richard Bonynge’s own archive.
The Overtures from the British Isles from Chandos are also given an ear-catching, memorable, clear recording (the venue, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff); the BBC’s National Orchestra of Wales under Rumon Gamba getting into the spirit of works which come from the late-19th/early-20th-century English musical renascence. The programme begins with another forgotten name, Frederic Austin, his Sea Venturers, an eleven-minute score of action and orchestral flamboyance dating from 1935. Sullivan’s Macbeth overture of 1888 is probably the most familiar piece on the CD, but Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Overture to The Song of Hiawatha and Balfour Gardiner’s Overture to a Comedy (1906, revised 1911) have, in places, that poetic Englishness of spirit which you might feel in an overgrown rose garden of a country house, or at a village festivity. However, a jaunty north-of-the-border flavour will make you tap your hand or foot along in time to the 1897 Overture, The Little Minister (J.M. Barrie) by that thoroughly Buchanesque-sounding Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie. They certainly don’t make composers like this any more.
Chandos also brings us the music of Frederick Delius, played by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of that well-loved champion of British music, Sir Andrew Davis. Sir Andrew’s name is synonymous with that of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but it is good to see him at the helm of a continental ensemble – and promoting the music of our country abroad. Except that it is sometimes difficult to think of Delius as a truly English figure. Bradford-born, but of Germanic descent, Delius was very much an international figure, his youth spent in Florida and in the artistic milieu of Paris, and also in the mountains and by the fjords of Norway. For the pantheistic, Nietzschean, free-spirited Delius, the fresh air of the high hills and the sun breaking through the clouds at the end of a stormy day represented for the composer the very essence and momentum of life; and this latest Norwegian collection certainly celebrates the spirit of the Scandinavian Delius. Among the works presented by Davis and his Bergen players are: Paa Vidderne – which translates as ‘In the Mountains’ (1889-91, revised 1892); Songs from the Norwegian (the song, The Princess, almost Mahlerian in its world-weary, twilight tone and atmosphere), and the incidental music to the Gunnar Heiberg play, Folkeraadet (1897) – ‘The People’s Parliament’. Better known is On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, dating from 1912, which receives a beautiful performance. People tend to think of this as a quintessentially English work. Not so: its roots are in Norwegian folk-song.
Finally, we return to chamber music, to a recording made not at Kings Place, but at The Finchcocks Musical Museum, at Goudhurst in the Weald of Kent. The works are Schubert’s Quintet, Op. post. 114, D 667 ‘Die Forelle’ – (The Trout – dated 1819) – and the Op. 87 Quintet of 1802 by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Both are substantial scores, the Schubert longer in duration than the Hummel, and are performed by The Music Collection, leader, Simon Standage – a much-respected name in the world of classical and baroque violin-playing. The recording (Chandos on wonderful form again) is pleasing for being set down, not in the laser-sharp clarity of a recording studio, but in the acoustic of Finchcocks – the recorded sound suggesting music being played in a drawing room, or in a wood-panelled house. The “authenticity” and music-at-home feel of the production brings us back to the world of Purcell’s Fantasia; to a small circle of people playing and listening – as if the composers were there in person. Such is the fascination and detail, and connection with the performers, offered by the closeness of chamber performance.