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.

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