In this issue: An Archduke from Beethoven * Intimate letters from Janacek * A sonata for strings by Malcolm Arnold * Pageant of British music from Chandos.

Recorded live in the fine acoustic of St. George’s Bristol, the complete piano trios series from Somm Records continues to set a benchmark for chamber music. Volume 4 more than lives up to what has gone before, with that perfect blend of analytical precision and generosity of rich, melodic tone that are the hallmarks of the Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin, Alice Neary, cello, and the pianist, Benjamin Frith). They delight us on CD with three Beethoven masterpieces, the Trio in E flat major, Op.1, No. 1; the trio in E flat major (which has the designation, Hess 48), and the well-known “Archduke Trio” – the four-movement Op. 97, B flat major work, which Beethoven dedicated to Archduke Rudolph (1788-1831), a keen music student who benefited from the tutelage of the composer.

All successful chamber groups and ensembles have that indefinable “second sight” – the ability to play and listen as one, and to anticipate the next move, gesture or inflexion, but the Gould Trio achieves a rare oneness of expression and sound in their elegant transitions through Beethoven’s many compelling themes, variations and fertile, flourishing ideas. For a composition for three players, the Op. 97 is surprisingly “large”, dynamic and wide-ranging: the listener can immediately tell that Beethoven is a symphonic composer, able to fill his imaginative landscape-in-sound with many commanding peaks, and gentle valley floors. The two outer movements, marked Allegro, have great vitality, as does the second scherzo section. The 12-minute-long Andante cantabile shows us the depths of Beethoven, and in the hands of the Gould Trio, I doubt if any listener could wish for a better interpretation.

Beethoven’s example as a composer of chamber music and symphonies probably inspired every other musician who came in his wake. Following Beethoven’s example, Bruckner, Mahler and Malcolm Arnold wrote nine symphonies – as did Vaughan Williams, although Sibelius fell short by two. And Beethoven’s idealistic opera, Fidelio, and the Ode to Joy finale of his Ninth Symphony showed how, in revolutionary times, serious messages could and should be disseminated by the artist. His legacy is vast – and far-reaching. In the new spirit of 20th-century national consciousness, both Janacek and Martinu – Czech nationalists – continued the European tradition of expressive chamber music with the writing of string quartets; Chandos records bringing us three such pieces on their new disc, performed by the Doric Quartet – an ensemble of brilliant musicians from the younger generation, and the winners of leading international prizes in the chamber genre, in Japan, Italy and Germany. First performed in 1924, in the presence of the composer, Janacek’s First String Quartet was inspired by a Tolstoy tale, The Kreutzer Sonata (which took its name, in turn, from the sonata by Beethoven). Concerned with the suffering of a woman in a “swinish” marriage, Tolstoy’s protagonist forms a liaison with a fellow musician, and together, they perform Beethoven’s sonata – which leads to an explosion of jealous rage on the part of the woman’s obsessive husband. Janacek’s own personal life had its own complications (his marriage was coming to an end – due to his infatuation with a lady, many years his junior, by the name of Kamilla Stosslova), and his sonata reflects these emotional disturbances, although – curiously – he writes not out of self-pity, but of pity for the wife and her unhappiness.

Kamilla Stosslova

Kamilla Stosslova

The second quartet, subtitled Intimate Letters, is similarly concerned with Kamilla; and the 600 or so letters that he penned to her, his muse:

“For the last eleven years you have, without knowing it, been my idol. Whenever there is warmth of feeling, sincerity, truth and ardent love in my compositions, you are the source of it.”

For Janacek, this was music composed in the very immediacy of experience: “acquiring its shape in fire”, rather than something re-created from the memory of embers and “hot ashes”. The quartets are clearly not “constructed”, or in any way an exercise in form. This is physical music, burning its way from the body and soul, with an ever-present spikiness and tension – the Doric Quartet leading us through the loneliness, the sudden outbursts of desire and anger which open and close like the doors of a sinister house of secrets.

Bohuslav Martinu’s String Quartet No. 3 (first performed in the United States in 1930) completes this Czech collection, and for those unfamiliar with Martinu, I can but point you, either to the unique Fifth Symphony – one of my first introductions to this overlooked figure – or to the film which Ken Russell made in the early 1990s, The Mystery of Dr. Martinu – a biopic, or more correctly, composer-phantasmagoria, so typical of this “appalling talent”, as Russell was once described by critics. With strange dreams and suggestions unfolding in Martinu’s (and Russell’s) febrile mind, maidens (in various stages of undress) brandishing Czech flags, and dancing through Bohemia’s woods and fields – and even an appearance by a locomotive of a miniature railway in Kent – the film is an unusual but effective piece of music-education! The Doric Quartet, though, pulls us back into the actual Martinu: the composer whose music suggests new worlds and sound-worlds, complex and compact forms, with the ability to shape some noble phrases from raw energy, and a colliding, curdling, kaleidoscopic 20th-century tonal background.

Prague Castle

Prague Castle

If there is one British composer who could be likened to Martinu, it might be Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006): trumpet player, symphonist, prolific composer of film scores (from The Sound Barrier to St. Trinian’s), writer of breezy English, Scottish and Cornish Dances (not to mention a march for the Padstow lifeboat), and conductor – in 1969 – of the diverse-and-democractic-before-its-time Concerto for Group and Orchestra, in which Deep Purple joined the Royal Philharmonic at the Albert Hall. Arnold could be the most generous of men, but throughout his life he fought against many inner demons and suffered from a darker side, all of which accentuated in his music a tragedy and tenderness. Yet there was a gift for radiant, loving, transcendent melody – curving away into chirpy, street-corner tunes that make you want to whistle along (even some hymn-like phrases now and again), but these passages can suddenly twist into blistering, shrieking Shostakovich-like marches and dances of death.

From Somm, comes a beguiling rendition of his Sonata for Strings (actually a string quartet from the mid-1970s, later expertly arranged by fellow composer, David Matthews, and first performed just before the composer’s death) – played by the 16-strong Orchestra of St. Paul’s, conducted by Ben Palmer. May I offer a warning to listeners? If you are in any way a sentimental person, it might be best to avoid playing the fourth movement Allegretto-Vivace-Lento music of the sonata: Arnold has written a wistful, soft-flickering idea, so simple, so evocative of lost days, or lost loves or deep memories of some kind – irreplaceable and locked-in-the-heart – that it is difficult not to feel a gulp in the throat, or the tingle of a tear at the corner of the eye. This is a truly beautiful piece of writing, and Ben Palmer’s players make much of its deep saying; its gentle, poignant, understated magic.

Meanwhile, and with equally polished playing, Chandos bring us a magnificent box-set of all nine Arnold symphonies, the conducting shared between the late Richard Hickox, and the British music enthusiast (and film-music specialist), Rumon Gamba. The London Symphony and BBC Philharmonic orchestras are presented in dazzling Chandos sound: the high-octane percussion and brass, and the many softer details, too – the innocent first-movement idea, like gentle rain, and the string tremolo which buoys up a confident, even cocky theme (third movement) in the Fifth Symphony – brought into vivid focus by the sound-engineers of this exclusive label.

Finally, our British pageant comes to a conclusion with an extremely interesting collection of music for wind band, or wind orchestra, played by the Central Band of the Royal Air Force, under their director, Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs. The famous Holst and Vaughan Williams suites appear (and how deeply and solemnly the RAF players deliver the first movement of Holst’s First Suite, Op. 28, No. 1, dating from 1909). Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy (written just two years before the Second World War) – full of fragrant, salty tunes, and reflective folk-melodies from an old English shire by the North Sea – is a delight; but it is particularly good to see the name of Ernest Tomlinson (b. 1924) represented. His Suite of English Folk Dances was written for a festival of music and dance in 1951 – a time when the avant-garde was beginning to assert itself, but when an English audience still wanted the reassuring sense of home.

Sturdy, catchy tunes from old village processions – suggestive, perhaps, of Hardy’s Wessex, or from a May Day Morris dance in Gloucestershire – are framed by slower-in-pace pastoral tunes, which evoke lonely hills and an English landscape of the heart. Tomlinson’s simple, ancestral melodies nudge at stronger emotions. It is like watching the sun rise on a misty morning near Orford Ness, or enjoying a Romney Marsh dusk, coloured by a haze of pink sunset half-light: the experience, the music truly touches one of those unfathomable parts of the soul.

STUART MILLSON is the Classical Music Editor of Quarterly Review.

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