Monday, 20 June 2016

Effortlessly sublime Schubert, sophisticated Fauré and energetic Beethoven

Alasdair Beatson & Olga Jegunova
© Rob Read, LCMF

James Boyd (viola)

Schubert:    Variations for four hands in A flat major, D813

Fauré:         Barcarolle No. 10, Op. 104. No. 2
                   Nocturne No. 7, Op. 74

Beethoven: Serenade for String Trio in D major, Op. 8
                   String Trio in E flat major, Op. 3

Saturday 18 June 2016

The Lewes Chamber Music Festival, now in its fifth year, is going from strength to strength, and this year’s programme included a great variety of repertoire from an impressive roster of talented performers.  You can read more about the festival and this year’s programme here.  I would happily have attended all eight concerts given time – and from conversations overheard in the audience, I suspect some did.  However, I picked to attend concert number four, with music for piano four hands by Schubert, followed by String Trios by Beethoven – with some extra Fauré piano music thrown in (more of that later).

Schubert’s Variations for four hands in A flat major, D813, were composed in 1824, and Schubert specifically mentions them in a letter to his brother at the time as an example of his new found sense of ‘happiness and peace’.  They are a perfect example of Schubert’s ability to take a relatively straightforward melody (although here he does include an unexpected modulation to C minor in its second half), and transform it through repeated reinvention into something deeply profound.  Here, it is in the penultimate seventh variation that this high point of profundity is reached, when the rhythmic pace is suddenly slowed and the primo player (Alasdair Beatson) plays almost a recitative over the unexpected harmonies and unresolved suspensions of the secondo part (Olga Jegunova).  That C minor shift at the end of the first half of the theme is now transformed into a passionate blossoming in C major, setting up a new spirit for the final extended variation, with an energetically rousing finish.  Leading up to this, however, the first six variations build through Schubert’s highly varied use of textures, with delicate triplet decoration in the first, and a particularly expressive slow, funereal march (more than reminiscent of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7).  Throughout, Beatson’s and Jegunova’s blend and close communication were evident, and where Schubert passes melodies and runs from player to player, this felt seamless and effortless in their hands.  The seventh variation had a particularly passionate intensity, and they finished off an excellent performance with a brilliantly spirited final variation.  

Bengt Forsberg
© Rob Read, LCMF
Then to end the first half of the concert, there was an addition to the programme.  Pianist Bengt Forsberg, who had already appeared in two of the Festival’s concerts, and would be returning for two more the next day, gave us some beautifully sensitive Fauré.  First he played the darkly rocking Barcarolle No. 10, Op. 104 No. 2, with its chromatic, fluid harmonies, and he followed this with the substantial Nocturne No. 7, Op. 74, the longest of Fauré’s thirteen Nocturnes. This begins with a relatively straightforward falling line, but Fauré takes this into ever increasingly chromatic and complex harmonic realms, with a highly contrasting central section.  This becomes more and more decorated, with rippling textures and rapid flourishes, before the opening material returns briefly, followed by a short, quiet coda.  Forsberg played with great subtlety and sophistication, with an intensity that Fauré’s opaque piano music demands.  This provided a wonderful contrast to the sublime Schubert that preceded it, bringing the first half of the concert to a satisfying close.

Alina Ibramigova, James Boyd & Jonathan Cohen
© Rob Read, LCMF
Following the interval, another change of personnel, and we were now in early Beethoven territory – his two early examples of works for String Trio.  Aside from the String Trio in E flat major, Op. 3 and the Serenade for String Trio in D major, Op. 8, Beethoven wrote three more as a set, Op. 9, before turning his attentions to the string quartet. Both of the early works, which we heard tonight, follow the model of Mozart’s only work for string trio, the Divertimento K563, and consist of six movements each, both with two Minuet & Trio movements framing a central Adagio movement.  Around this he begins and ends the works with faster movements, and an additional slower second movement.  The two early works are not insubstantial, running at over an hour combined – and this leads to my one criticism of the evening’s programme.  Both works might have benefited from separation from each other, as hearing them together did perhaps emphasise their similarities of form.  However, they are certainly not without moments of great interest and glimpses of Beethoven’s ability to subvert the conventions of form, and Alina Ibragimova (violin), James Boyd (viola) and Jonathan Cohen (cello) gave highly engaging and communicative performances that highlighted moments of humour and surprise within Beethoven’s music.  They played the Op. 8 Serenade first, and immediately we had a sense of energy from the players in their attack in the opening March. The Adagio that follows has a feel of a musette, with the double-stopped cello grounding the texture.  Throughout their performances, there was a strong sense of communication and they blended their warm tones in the rich, thick textures of this movement in particular.  The church perhaps has a rather boomy acoustic that at times hampered articulation, although this improved with time as they settled in.  The first of the minuets had great rustic humour, and the second had a dancing lift to the rhythms.  Between them, Ibragimova and Boyd sang the sad melody of the Adagio in unison with perfect blend – and they all enjoyed the quirky central section here. Beethoven ends the work with a Theme and Variations, and here each player gets more of a solo chance to shine, with delicate decoration from the violin then viola in turn, and later a cantabile solo cello line in the fourth variation.  The movement comes to a quiet conclusion before Beethoven brings back the opening March to close the work.

The String Trio, Op. 3 contains throughout lots of Beethovenian use of stops and starts, unexpected rests and false endings, and once again the players had fun with the element of surprise, much to the audience’s delight.  The lengthy sonata form opening movement was given a warm rendition, and the blend within the full acoustic was noticeably more settled here.  The second movement kicks off with offbeat rhythms, and it takes the listener a little while to settle into the pulse, one of Beethoven’s favourite tricks. Ibragimova played with great delicacy here, and the exchanges of trills between viola and cello were also handled with precision and subtlety. More stop/start rhythms in the first Minuet, and once again communication between players was paramount to place these moments together.  Beethoven pares things down for the Adagio, with a singing violin line, lilting viola accompaniment and simple cello bass line.  When the material returns at the end of the movement, there was some incredibly touching and sensitive pianissimo playing here.  In the finale, Beethoven writes his most virtuosic music for the players, and they all get more of a chance for individual display.  There is some rapid figuration, and Ibramigova and Boyd demonstrated tight ensemble in their joint runs.  The dash to the finish line had great energy – no mean feat at the end of two highly committed and demanding performances. 

Overall, this was an impressive evening of the highest standard of chamber music playing, in a warm and friendly atmosphere.  I trust this was typical of the rest of the festival, and I for one will be returning next year, and hopefully with time to sample more of the delights on offer.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Lewes Chamber Music Festival 2016

Friday 17 June to Sunday 19 June 2016

Beatrice Philips, Artistic Director
The Lewes Chamber Music Festival is celebrating its fifth year by drawing in to Lewes its largest number of leading chamber musicians to date – twenty string, woodwind and vocal performers will appear in eight concerts over three days.

The Festival has already secured a strong reputation amongst musicians and audiences alike, with the Daily Telegraph in 2015 calling it:  'a small but high-class festival bringing fine performers to interesting old venues'.

Beatrice Philips, the Festival's Artistic Director said: 'We have already become known for delivering exciting performances by some of the UK’s leading musicians, giving audiences here the chance to discover new and less well-known works, alongside much-loved chamber pieces, all set within intimate venues around Lewes.'

This year’s programme sets chamber music from Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert, and later composers such as Ravel and Faure, alongside more unusual works by composers such as Bartók, Berg and Schoenberg, as well as showcasing pieces by less well-known but intriguing composers such as Cécile Chaminade, Gabriel Pierné and Henri Dutilleux. It is this kind of innovative and exciting programming which gives the Lewes Festival its edge and excitement for audiences.

Alina Ibragimova
As is always the case, the Festival has attracted leading talent, including this year the exceptional violinist Alina Ibragimova, only 30 and yet already awarded an MBE for services to music in 2016.  A soloist at the Proms in 2015, Alina has also been the recipient of numerous awards including the Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artist Award 2010 and the Classical BRIT Young Performer of the Year Award 2009.  An outstanding chamber music performer as well as a soloist, her trio performance in Lewes on Saturday – before a Wigmore Hall performance of the same programme the following day - will be one of the Festival highlights.

As well as some familiar faces, the Festival welcomes nine musicians who will be performing here for the first time. This includes a range of woodwind performers, allowing works such as the Dohnáyni Piano Sextet and the Schubert Octet to be enjoyed by appreciative Lewes audiences.

The Eusebius Quartet which formed in 2014 will also be in residence at the Festival, bringing this exciting group of young musicians to Lewes again following their sold-out Christmas concert performance in St John sub Castro, Lewes.

The concerts this year will be focussed on the two largest venues in Lewes - St John Sub Castro and All Saints Centre, to cope with the expected demand from audiences. The concerts also make the most of these beautiful spaces – with the newly refurbished St Johns especially providing a superb venue for chamber music, with its new flexible seating layout and excellent acoustics.

Signalling its importance on the musical stage, the Lewes Chamber Music Festival has once again attracted the support of the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust, which helps young people attend world-class chamber music. Their support makes tickets to the concerts completely free for those under 26 years old.

The Festival’s Artistic Director, Beatrice Philips, said: 

'I am proud that our Festival continues to offer audiences the rare opportunity to hear both much-loved and also more unusual music performed at such a high level outside the big venues in the UK. The intimate festival atmosphere makes it an unmissable weekend of concerts for music-lovers.

This year, I have been inspired by Bartok and by Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht to create this exciting mix of pieces. The opportunity of bringing woodwind to the chamber festival also adds a great new dimension to the programming.

I am also thrilled to be welcoming performers such as Alina who will continue our fine tradition of drawing in exceptional talent to Lewes.

All in all a fantastic line-up with amazing music - and tickets for under 26 year-olds are free of charge thanks to our support from the Cavatina trust.'

Tickets cost just £14-£16, with an all-concert pass at just £100, and can be bought online here. You can also email, tel: 01273 479865 or buy in person from Lewes Travel. 

Festival Musicians:
Violin: Katharine Gowers, Venetia Jollands, Beatrice Philips, Tim Crawford, Hélène Maréchaux, Alina Ibragimova
Viola: James Boyd, Lilli Maijala, Hannah Strijbos
Cello: Robin Michael, Pierre Doumenge, Hannah Sloane, Jonathan Cohen
Double Bass: Adam Wynter
Piano: Alasdair Beatson, Bengt Forsberg, Olga Jegunova
Clarinet: Matt Hunt 
Horn: Martin Owen 
Bassoon: Peter Whelan 
Tenor: Ben Johnson

The Eusebius Quartet: Venetia Jollands, Beatrice Philips, Hannah Strijbos & Hannah Sloane.

Visit here for full programme details, venues and times.

(Source: Lewes Chamber Music Festival)

CD Reviews - June 2016

Last month I reviewed Canadian pianists Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier in a great recording of Rachmaninov – this time it’s music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).  Poulenc is one of those composers whose music is so distinctive that it could be by nobody else.  There is a certain combination of quirkiness and wit, but combined with such imaginative use of harmony, and he often sneaks in sudden moments of heartfelt beauty that creep up and surprise you.  The Piano Concerto from 1949 was composed as a showcase for a tour in America, with a tongue in cheek reworking of ‘Way down upon the Swanee river’ in the finale, and it is certainly great fun and somewhat light in spirit. Yet even here, there is subtlety in the understated slow movement, to which Lortie and the BBC Philharmonic, under Edward Gardner, are certainly wise.  In the Aubade, a ‘Concerto choréographique’ the balance is perhaps the other way around – there are lighter moments, and his spirited style makes appearances, yet the music is altogether more dramatic, despite the sparse scoring for just the piano and 18 instruments. The story of the huntress Diana and her doomed love is told through sparse and often harsh orchestration, but the final dénouement is highly sensitive and affecting. Here Lortie and the BBC Philharmonic players perform with great ensemble and precision, perhaps focusing on the harsher side of Poulenc’s writing.  In the Concerto for Two Pianos, the combination of Poulenc as slightly crazy joker with a more introverted, emotional soul is perhaps at its most extreme.  In the first movement we go from madcap film chase music straight into a heartfelt, highly romantic central section. Lortie and Mercier capture these mood changes well, and support from Gardner and the orchestra is at all times spot on.  The Balinese gamelan effect from the two pianists at the end of this movement is enchanting, the theme anticipating the riot that is the finale. But before that comes a seemingly simple Mozartian movement that gradually morphs into something darker and slightly twisted.  Lortie and Mercier don’t overstate this and allow the music to flow towards its dramatic peak before falling back to the Mozartian conclusion, now somehow underpinned with a sadder atmosphere.  The finale is action packed, full of great tunes, and all concerned have great fun here, particularly when the gamelan theme appears transformed for the climactic conclusion.  The disc is rounded off with three works for just the pianists, firstly the Sonata for Piano Four Hands, and then two short pieces for two pianos.  Poulenc wrote the Sonata aged 19, although he revised it some twenty years later.  Its pleasantly simple ‘Naïf’ central movement is sandwiched between two energetic and spiky movements.  The late Élégie is altogether more romantic and lush, a memorial to a close friend, Marie-Blanche de Polignac, who died the year before.  Finally, L’Embarquement pour Cythère, at just over two minutes is a jolly waltz and a perfect encore piece, delicately and expertly performed by Lortie & Mercier here to round off a great collection of performances of such individual music – if you don’t know Poulenc, this is a great place to start.

Composer Kenneth Hesketh (b.1968) was born in Liverpool, and has a strong established career, composing music in many genres, including opera, orchestral and vocal music.  He also trained as a pianist and percussionist, and pianist Clare Hammond, for whom he wrote the central work on her new disc of his music, points out that this is apparent in his writing for the instrument.  The disc opens with a literary inspired short work, Through Magic Casements, and draws on Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.  It has a dreamlike quality, with the nightingale singing from the upper reaches of the keyboard with increasing feverishness.  Horae (Pro Clara) (‘Breviary for Clare’), the most substantial work here, is a sequence of twelve short pieces, together forming a breviary, or book of hours. Hesketh employs a startling array of sonic techniques, using the extremes of the keyboard (notably in No. 8) and pushing the pianist to incredibly virtuosic displays.  He creates ghostly soundworlds (such as in No. 1), and has the ability of shifting from evoking the ‘tiniest humming bird’ (No. 2), to creating disturbing, anxious moods (No. 6).  In No. 8 he explores ‘intertwining chime clocks’ which gradually become out of sync, once again unsettling the listener.  This also includes moments where the pianist has to pluck and brush the strings inside the piano.  No. 10 has a darkly relentless sense of movement, ‘like an evening full of the linnet’s wings’ (a reference to a Yeats poem). Hammond seems fearless in achieving the requirements of these incredibly challenging pieces.  Despite also being somewhat challenging for the listener, when taken as a whole, this set is highly effective and offers a wide range of effects and moods.  Notte Oscura is a piano transcription of an interlude from Hesketh’s opera ‘The Overcoat’, after Nikolai Gogol, and very effectively conjures up the vast icy landscape and a sense of menace to come. The Three Japanese Miniatures that complete the disc again push the bounds of technical limits for the pianist.  They are in fact fragments from a larger puppet ballet in progress, and one can immediately imagine the images of sprites and daemons conjured up here, bringing the disc to an imaginative close.  If you want to hear fearless virtuosity from an expert pianist, in music that pushes the boundaries of what you might expect from the instrument, then this is highly recommended.

Hesketh, K. 2016. Horae (pro Clara), etc. Clare Hammond. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. BIS Records, BIS-2193.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, June 2016)