In concert – Werther Ensemble: British Piano Quartets at St John’s, Smith Square

werther-ensemble

Werther Ensemble (Jamie Campbell (violin), Nicholas Bootiman (viola), James Barralet (cello), Simon Callaghan (piano); St John’s Smith Square, London, 21 February 2016

Bliss Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 5 (1915)

Howells Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 21 (1916)

Alwyn Rhapsody (1938)

Walton Piano Quartet in D minor (1919)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Werther Ensemble has proved itself adept across the broad spectrum of nineteenth- and twentieth-century chamber music, and this enterprising programme demonstrated the range of response by British composers to that most often overlooked of media – the piano quartet.

Admittedly it got off to a lukewarm start with the Piano Quartet by Sir Arthur Bliss. True the first movement began impressively, but its ensuing contrast of romantic ardour with a gauche folksiness the composer was soon to jettison never quite worked, then the central Intermezzo was simply too short and lightweight to hold a balance between its predecessor and the lively finale with its dutiful recall of the work’s opening theme towards the close. Understandable if Bliss should have left this piece to its fate as he headed off in a radically different direction.

A year younger, Howells completed his own Piano Quartet at much the same time, yet here there could be no doubt as to its consistency of musical idiom with those other chamber works from this composer’s early maturity. The opening movement unfolded with no mean deliberation, its main ideas emerging gradually and only rarely asserting themselves against a constantly shifting harmonic context.

For all that it conveyed a purposeful momentum as the Werther was mindful to contrast with the lingering eloquence of the central Lento – building in stages towards a soulful climax tinged with regret. After this, the finale may have surprised with its rhythmic incisiveness and often headlong progress, yet the affirmative outcome was audibly in keeping with the underlying trajectory of this ‘dark horse’ among works of its kind.

After the interval, a welcome revival for the Rhapsody as was the first of Alwyn’s two contributions to the medium. This packed a wealth of incident into its modest timespan of a little more than nine minutes. The tensile initial idea proved dominant while being flexible enough to accommodate understated material in a loosely palindromic structure that brought a satisfying completion. The Werther was more than equal to the technical challenges of a piece as reminded one some of Alwyn’s most distinctive music is to be found in his chamber output.

The programme concluded with the Piano Quartet by which the teenage Walton gave notice of his protean talent. Although revised in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, this is very much a young composer’s music – one steeped in recent scores by Ravel and Stravinsky that are put to productive use over its thematically interrelated four movements.

The Werther duly sustained its half-hour span with conviction to spare – whether in its trenchant response to the bracing scherzo, the ambivalent shadows that inform the Andante’s fitful progress, or the ingenuity by which the opening movement links hands with the finale in an impressive show of technical resource and cumulative energy – especially during the latter’s heady central passage, a sure pointer towards the composer’s musical preoccupations a decade and more hence.

An impressive conclusion, then, to a well-conceived and finely executed recital, in spite of the occasional intonational flaw. Apparently this had to be postponed from last year because of illness among the ensemble – in which case, its rescheduling was justified in every respect.

 

Joseph Tong – Sibelius and the piano

joseph-tong

Joseph Tong, St John’s Smith Square, 13 May 2015.

It is surprising, the number of famous composers with piano works that are rarely if ever heard in concert. Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Dvořák and Wagner – all wrote a considerable amount of keyboard music that remains relatively unheard.

To that list can be added Jean Sibelius, whose canon of piano works runs from early juvenilia to the late Five Esquisses of 1929. Sibelius wrote at the piano in his Ainola house, but the suspicion persists that a lot of his work was a necessary complement to the popular orchestral works we do hear a lot of – and that it wasn’t always designed for outings in the concert hall.

sibelius-piano

Sibelius’ piano at his Ainola home.

Joseph Tong sought to challenge that notion with a concert composed entirely of Sibelius piano works, given at St John’s Smith Square in the presence of the Finnish Ambassador. While the attendance suggested the music was not a great draw, the end product was never less than intriguing and often provided clues to Sibelius’s overall style.

Tong constructed a logical program that took us to the outer edges of the Finn’s piano output, from earlier pieces with a nationalist bent (the three movement suite Kyllikki and the five-piece suite The Trees) to some of the more rigorously structured pieces from Sibelius’ neo-classical period (a surprisingly touching Sonatina and two Rondinos) and finally to a strikingly effective transcription of the great Finlandia.

Tong was the ideal exponent, enjoying the intimacy of Sibelius’ writing and the occasionally abrupt manner in which he finishes his musical phrases. The Sonatina was a particular treat, its last movement hanging on the air like a branch after a bird has flown from it. Also notable was The Spruce last of The Trees, a popular work Tong played again as an encore. The later works were deeper and darker, suggesting winter claustrophobia in Sibelius’ house at Ainola, with only the hint of brighter times in evocations of spring.

To understand Sibelius as a composer the piano works are an invaluable and private aside, and in the right environment – such as this – they work very well as an intimate concert experience. Even the bluster of Finlandia, brilliantly played here, had its tender moments in the slow chorale theme that Tong gave lovingly. For an anniversary tribute with a difference, the pianist deserves great credit.

Joseph Tong has recorded a CD of Sibelius piano works, structured in a very similar way to the concert. It can be heard here on Spotify, with a second volume apparently in the pipeline for 2016.