In concert – Timothy Ridout & Tom Poster: Brahms Sonatas & Schwertsik world premiere @ Wigmore Hall

ridout-poster

Timothy Ridout (viola), Tom Poster (piano)

Brahms Sonata for viola and piano in F minor Op.120/1 (1894)
Schwertsik Haydn lived in Eisenstadt (2021, world premiere)

Brahms Sonata for viola and piano no.2 in E flat major Op.120/2 (1894)

St John’s Smith Square, London
Monday 10 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was, on paper, an ideal match of repertoire and performers – and it proved that way on screen too, as the Wigmore Hall served us the latest offering in its lunchtime concert program.

Timothy Ridout and Tom Poster are both beneficiaries of the invaluable Young Concert Artists Trust (YCAT) scheme and the BBC’s New Generation Artists program, of which Ridout is still a member. They are both plotting exciting paths as distinctive artists, and as a duo they enjoy an easy rapport, clearly relishing the music they play – an observation which can never be taken for granted!

The two sonatas published as Op.120 are Brahms’ final notes in chamber music, and indeed among his last works altogether. To have younger artists playing them is to reveal the youthful heart amid their autumnal colours, showing off their elusive qualities and winsome melodies.

Both works may have originated for clarinet and piano but work equally well through the burnished tones of the viola. Indeed Ridout proved with the first notes of the Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 that the range is ideal for his instrument, and the tone – not to mention Poster’s complementary piano line – was ideally weighted once he had fully secured the intonation.

The second movement had a cold shiver, thanks to the use of less vibrato, but grew warmer as it progressed. The genial Allegro grazioso was a treat, the finale more celebratory but enjoying its flowing second themes too.

The E flat sonata was if anything even more successful, lighter on its feet and with airy phrases and interplay. The first movement bobbed and weaved beautifully, especially when Ridout was playing in the higher register, which Poster clearly relished. The second movement literally rolled up its sleeves for a powerful outpouring, Ridout’s tone beautifully supple. By contrast the central section benefited from the burnished tones of the double-stopped viola. The finale’s theme and variations were well judged, thoughtful and mellow to begin with but then more capricious as they progressed, finishing with a thoroughly convincing flourish.

Between the two Brahms works was an interesting new piece by Kurt Schwertsik, commissioned by Ridout himself. Schwertsik is a Viennese composer now in his 70s, aware of his place in musical history but making original and intriguing music. This piece was characteristically elusive, under the intriguing title Haydn lived in Eisenstadt. Set in several movements, it posed questions and answers, but remained curiously unsettled. BBC Radio 3 presenter Andrew McGregor thought the piece had ended at one point, only for another two movements to follow – a situation we have all surely experienced as audience members! Ridout swept through the longer phrases of the penultimate movement against softly tolling chords from the piano, before the last movement threw furtive glances into the shadows amid bursts of activity, ending in a similar vein to early Schoenberg.

Poster ensured the harmonies were a point of focus throughout, hinting at exotic late Romanticism but never quite settling in that mood. This was a piece of intriguing thoughts and colours, a substantial utterance well worth hearing again. It proved the ideal complement to the poised Brahms sonatas around it – and the encore of the older composer’s Wie melodien, with which the concert softly concluded.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.

In concert – London Chamber Ensemble & Madeleine Mitchell: A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021)

London Chamber Ensemble [Madeleine Mitchell (violin, director), Joseph Spooner (cello), Sophia Rahman (piano), David Aspin (viola), Gordon Mackay (violin), Lynda Houghton (double bass), Peter Cigleris (clarinet, bass clarinet), Nancy Ruffer (flute), Alec Harmon (oboe), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Ian Pace (piano)

Rebecca Clarke Piano Trio (1921)
Judith Weir Atlantic Drift: Sleep Sound ida Mornin’ (1995), Atlantic Drift (2006), Rain and Mist are on the Mountain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes (Movements I-IV, 2005)
Helen Grime Miniatures (2005)
Judith Weir The Bagpiper’s String Trio (1985)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad Invocation for cello & piano (1999)
Thea Musgrave Colloquy (1960)
Ruth Gipps Prelude for bass clarinet (1958)
Errollyn Wallen Sojourner Truth (2021, world premiere)
Grace Williams Suite for Nine Instruments (1934)

St John’s Smith Square, London
Monday 9 March (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Classical music still has an awfully long way to go before female composers are an integral part of its make-up, but the celebration of International Women’s Day is helping the cause considerably, gaining more traction with each passing year.

One of the highlights of the 2021 celebrations was this concert from St John’s Smith Square, masterminded by Madeleine Mitchell, who led the London Chamber Ensemble in a very satisfying hour-and-a-half of music.

In a concert celebrating eight women composers, the common threads of America and the Royal College of Music were also explored. The latter organisation is where Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams and Helen Grime all studied, and where Errollyn Wallen and Mitchell herself are now professors. Wallen wrote a new piece, Sojourner Truth, for the occasion.

The concert began however with a terrific performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio. Completed in 1921, this substantial piece begins with a passionate outpouring, but it also has its elusive, mysterious moments. The trio of Mitchell, cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist Sophia Rahman caught these elements, getting off to a terrific start but pulling back to allow the enchanting slow movement room to breathe. At times Clarke’s music hints at influences from France – particularly Ravel but also Franck – which Spooner caught in his high intonation in the second movement. The spirit of the dance inhabited the finale, a more obviously English statement, but there was still room for more fervent thoughts when the trio united.

There was a sudden transition on the broadcast to the refreshing open air of Judith Weir’s Atlantic Drift, a compilation of three pieces for two violins proving an invigorating contrast to the denser textures of the Clarke. Weir’s incorporation of folk material into her music is enchanting, especially in the four-part last piece, Rain and mist are on the Moutain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes. Using a Gaelic song as its inspiration, Weir’s adaptation worked really well in these open air accounts from Mitchell and Gordon Mackay, the empty St John’s providing the ideal acoustic. Weir appeared later with The Bagpiper’s String Trio, a similarly folk-powered work from 1985. Based on a Scottish pipe tune this too lifted the listener away to the great outdoors, with excellent teamwork from Mitchell, Spooner and viola player David Aspin.

Helen Grime’s trio of Miniatures for oboe and piano were next, studies in compressed expression from the pale harmonics of the first to the jagged edges of the second. The third was an effective summation of Grime’s thoughts, panning out for a wider perspective from the piano. Alec Harmon and Sophia Rahman were fully responsive to the virtuoso demands.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Invocation for cello and piano followed, a late teenage piece offering an immediate chance to appreciate the probing line given to Joseph Spooner’s fulsome cello. As the composer’s response to Edvard Munch’s painting Melanchola reached its apex there were clangorous chords from Rahman, capping a compact but powerful utterance.

Thea Musgrave’s Colloquy was next, another model of economy – four short pieces for violin and piano packed with sharp, expressive statements. There were some challenges to performance here – such as the quick interchange between pizzicato and bowing in the second movement – which Mitchell took in her stride. The third piece was a touch more playful but still assertive, but the fourth was the most effective, a private train of thought gracefully prompted by Ian Pace’s piano.

The most striking piece of the evening – for its sound, its soul and its warmth – was Ruth GippsPrelude for bass clarinet. Gipps’ centenary falls this year, and her slightly baleful writing for the instrument was beautifully captured by Peter Cigleris, a model of control. After watching this I was struck by two questions – why do we not hear the music of Gipps more, and why are there not more pieces for solo bass clarinet?

Errollyn Wallen’s Sojourner Truth followed, written not just for Madeline Mitchell but for International Women’s Day – and taking us back to violin and piano. Based on a spiritual, O’er the crossing, it features intense dialogue between the two instruments, but when the melody is heard unaccompanied on the violin the ear is pulled firmly towards the centre of the music, a striking feature of another piece with more traditional inspirations.

To finish, we heard the 75-year-old Suite for Nine Instruments by Grace Williams. Scored for piano quintet, double bass, flute, clarinet and trumpet, it is a vivacious piece, quite modal and with hints of Stravinsky’s Septet for a similar instrumental combination – and equally driven in the outer movements, bringing the interval of a tritone right to the front. The London Chamber Ensemble played with flair, commitment and virtuosity, bringing a very impressive program to a close.

The concert is available to watch until 8 April on the link below – with some spoken introductions by Mitchell herself. On occasion the gaps between pieces are very short, but there are helpful markers to make viewing easier. Do make sure you watch, as some of the best chamber music from British women composers in the last 100 years is right here.

A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021) on International Women’s Day, directed by Madeleine Mitchell from St John’s Smith Square on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, Madeleine and the London Chamber Ensemble’s album of works by Grace Williams can be heard here:

In concert – English Music Festival Christmas Concerts

Em Marshall-Luck (narrator), Heather Wrighton (harp), Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin), Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

Parish Alvars Romance in F (1842)
Lewis Four Anticke Dances (2015)
Rutter Dancing Day – Interlude (1974)
Britten A Ceremony of Carols – Interlude (1942)
Adie Festive Fantasy (2018)
Thomas Cambria (1863)
Parry Freundschaftslieder (1872)
Various A Christmas Garland (2020) [World Premiere Performance]

St. Mary’s Church, Horsham, 17 December 2020

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Christmas events have inevitably been few and far between this season, thereby making these concerts by the English Music Festival especially welcome – the more so given that St Mary’s Horsham proved to be an ideal location for music-making of such intimacy and inwardness.

A tale of two contrasted halves saw the first devoted to music for the harp – opening with the doyen of 19th-century practitioners, Elias Parish Alvars, whose Romance eloquently spanned the gamut of possibilities from winsome introspection to dextrous virtuosity. Paul Lewis has done much to enrich the modern repertoire, his Four Anticke Dances evoking various dance-measures of the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras through melodies entirely original yet wholly avoiding pastiche. Two interludes from well-known larger collections followed, the ethereal remoteness of that from John Rutter’s Dancing Day contrasting with the delicate playfulness of that from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, then Harriet Adie’s Festive Fantasy combined 12 carols in various moods and styles for what is a gift to this instrument. Heather Wrighton rendered this and all those preceding pieces with unfailing assurance; joining with Duncan Honeybourne for Cambria by John Thomas, whose pioneering work in dissemination of Welsh music amply demonstrated in elaborate arrangements of three traditional melodies.

The second half commenced with Freundschaftslieder, four (from a likely total of six) pieces in which the young Parry confirmed growing assurance as a composer. If not overly cohesive, these make for a diverting sequence – whether in the harmonic and rhythmic ambivalence of a Nocturne in G minor, listless agitation of an Allegro in C minor, speculative unfolding of a Ballade in D minor, or confiding wistfulness of an Andante in E major whose subtitle The Confidence of Love underlines Parry’s adherence to an earlier era of musical Romanticism.

Rupert Marshall-Luck rendered these pieces with no mean virtuosity; then he, Honeybourne and narrator Em Marshall-Luck came together for the first hearing of A Christmas Garland – an anthology centred upon the theme of Christmas. It opened with John Pickard’s idiomatic arrangement of his choral piece O Magnum Mysterium, continuing with Richard Pantcheff’s luminous setting of Rilke’s The Annunciation to Mary then restrained fervency of Graham Keitch’s Intrada; prior to Cecilia McDowell’s ruminative take on Christina Rosetti’s Before the paling of Stars. EMF regular Richard Blackford contributed the atmospheric piano piece Christmas Dawn, leading to the elegiac tones of Paul Lewis’s setting of his poem Will There be Snow? and Paul Carr’s appealing take on Rosetti’s evergreen In the Bleak Midwinter. The piano miniatures of Roderick Williams’s Winterscapes provided a pertinent interlude before David Matthews’s entrancing (if unfinished?) setting of Anne Brontë’s Music on Christmas Morning, then James MacMillan’s paraphrase on his setting of John Donne’s poem Nativity.

Paul Lewis re-emerged with an elegant song-and-dance Christmas Twosome in the guise of Fireside Carol and Christmas Waltz, then came Thomas Hewitt Jones’s Sleigh ride with a tired reindeer: as humorous yet speculative a conclusion as one written in 2020 needed to be.

Further information can be found at the English Music Festival website

In concert – Members of the English Sinfonia @ St John’s Smith Square: English Miniatures

Members of the English Sinfonia: Janice Graham (violin), Nick Bootiman (viola), Julia Graham (cello) Chris Hopkins (piano)

Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914)
Bridge Miniatures – Book 2, H88 (1910)
Coleridge-Taylor Piano Trio in E minor (1893)
Holst String Trio in G minor (1894)
Bax Piano Quartet in One Movement (1922)

St. John’s, Smith Square, London, 15 December 2020 (lunchtime)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Celebrating its 60th anniversary next year, the English Sinfonia will be remembered by older listeners for those valuable recordings of British music with Neville Dilkes (not least the first modern account of Moeran’s Symphony). Its current incarnation as ensemble-cum-chamber orchestra enables it to tackle a wide repertoire, and even though only the core personnel was featured in this afternoon’s concert, the works that were chosen offered a more than plausible overview of British chamber music composed across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Easy to forget that, long before his music assumed a more radical mindset, Frank Bridge was a composer of lighter fare. Hence those three sets of Miniatures for piano trio – classy salon music of which the second set moves from a soulful while never cloying Romance, via an infectious and decidedly scherzo-like Intermezzo, to a Saltarello with more than a hint of menace in its hectic dash. By comparison, the Piano Trio of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor tries a little too hard to impress. If this early piece is hardly the equal of such as the later Clarinet Quintet, its three compact movements are never less than eventful – whether in the vehement Allegro with its portentous opening, a Scherzo whose unremitting energy brings little respite, or Finale whose distinctive furiant rhythm sees the whole work through to a forthright close.

Unlike the above, Holst composed relatively few chamber pieces in his maturity. While his String Trio evinces little sense of what he went on to achieve, this does not lack for incident. Idiosyncratic, too, in that its compact and forthright opening movement is followed by one which, over twice as long, integrates a slow movement, scherzo and finale that add up to an unlikely if cohesive whole; the fugal intricacies of that final section a stern test of ensemble such as the present players despatched with evident resolve. Appreciably more characteristic is the Piano Quartet by Bax – its tensile single movement packing a wide range of ideas and moods into little more than 10 minutes; and following an essentially conflicted to triumphal trajectory recalling that of the combative First Symphony which immediately preceded it.

Opening this afternoon’s programme, Janice Graham gave an affecting account of The Lark Ascending in the version for violin and piano first heard in public exactly 100 years ago. Now the orchestral version has become ubiquitous, this chamber guise can feel almost a reduction, yet the lucidity of its formal layout becomes even more explicit, and the understated poise of its piano part – as rendered by Chris Hopkins – belies any doubts as to Vaughan Williams’s limitations when writing for the instrument. An eloquent start to an enterprising programme.

Further information at https://www.englishsinfonia.org.uk/

In concert – Gould Piano Trio @ Wigmore Hall

Gould Piano Trio [Lucy Gould (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)]

Mozart Piano Trio in G major K564 (1788)
Clarke Piano Trio in E flat minor (1921)
Ravel Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London, 29 October 2020

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This latest event in the Wigmore Hall season saw a welcome recital by the Gould Trio, now well into its third decade and whose frequent appearances at this venue have always featured music from right across the medium of the piano trio; with tonight’s programme no exception.

A medium to which Mozart came relatively late in his career, producing five such works in little more than two years. Last in this sequence, K564 has rather remained in the shadow of its predecessors; unfairly so, as motivic interplay across and between its three movements is comparable to any of his more imposing pieces of this time. Such was affirmed in a reading which brought out the muscular interplay of its Allegro, the wistful elegance of its Andante then the relaxed nonchalance of a final Allegretto as ranks among Mozart’s most endearing.

Would that Rebecca Clarke had followed up her solitary contribution; the Piano Trio belonging to a clutch of pieces that should have laid the basis for a composing career but were destined to remain the peak of her achievement. The influence of Debussy and Ravel is often cited, but the vehemence of Bartók’s music from this period is equally evident – witness the emotional volatility of the first movement (which predates the similarly conceived opening movement of the Hungarian composer’s First Violin Sonata), fraught eloquence of the central Andante then driving impetus of the final Allegro; its powerful culmination subsiding into a resigned coda whose defiant ending feels almost in spite of itself. A fine performance by an ensemble which was championing this piece well before it attained the recognition it now justly enjoys.

If Ravel’s Piano Trio has never lacked for advocacy over the century and more since it was first performed, it remains a tough challenge both technically and interpretively. The present account was perhaps a shade under-characterized in the simmering dance rhythms of the first movement, with the Scherzo’s deft syncopations similarly downplayed at least until the sheer effervescence of its closing bars. No doubts, though, as to the ensuing Passacaglia – building methodically yet irresistibly to its baleful climax before winding down into the depths of the piano, from whence the finale steals in. The latter movement has been criticized for exuding near-orchestral sonorities, but Ravel’s handling of this is astutely judged – not least in a coda whose hard-won triumph in the face of encroaching adversity was powerfully conveyed here.

It certainly made for an impressive conclusion to this recital, just the sort of programme that feels necessary at such a time as this. Hopefully, these next few weeks will bring no cessation on the part of Wigmore Hall or the Gould Trio – their activities necessary now more than ever.

This concert can be streamed again until 29 November via the YouTube link above, or through the Wigmore Hall website here

These Wigmore Hall concerts are free to view but the venue is relying on the generosity of its audience to make them possible. If you do watch the concert, please consider making a donation, either at the Wigmore Hall website or via PayPal