Goldfield Ensemble Uncovers Forgotten English Musical Gems

19/04/2015

  Bliss, Boodle, Bridge, Howells, Ireland, Rubbra, Venables: The Goldfield Ensemble [Nicola Goldscheider, Alexandra Reid (violins), Bridget Carey (viola), Toby Turton (cello), Vicky Wright (clarinet), James Sherlock (piano)] Gloucester Music Society, St Mary de Lode Church, Gloucester, 18.4.2015. (RJ)

Herbert Howells: Rhapsodic Quintet, Op 31
Christopher Boodle: Piano Quartet (world premiere)
Sir Arthur Bliss: Clarinet Quartet
Edmund Rubbra: Piano Trio in One Movement, Op 68
John Ireland: Piano Trio No 2 in E major
Frank Bridge: Piano Quintet in D minor
Ian Venables: Canzonetta for Clarinet and String Quartet Op 44
Herbert Howells: Piano Quartet in A minor

One feature that sets Gloucester Music Society apart from many of its peers is its determination to champion the music of British composers. This commendable trait was much in evidence in the culmination of its 85th season which presented eight English chamber works written between 1900 and the present day.

 It was particularly fitting that works by Herbert Howells should start and round off the two sessions, for he was a local lad and Gloucestershire was his territory. His Rhapsodic Quintet from 1919 proved an excellent appetiser for the menu to follow with the the lush harmonies of its introduction, elements of folk song, allusions to English Renaissance church music and its mood of mysticism, well captured by Vicky Wright and the string players.

 Fast forward nearly a century to a brand new work by Christopher Boodle whose oeuvre encompasses symphonies, an oratorio, a cantata, and a mass  as well as numerous chamber and organ works. The opening to his Piano Quartet was stern and acerbic in tone with the violin and viola often in dialogue above a piano accompaniment. The scherzo was highly rhythmic with a percussive piano contribution while there was an air of mystery about the Larghetto which included a rhythmically interesting trio. Much of the darkness was dissipated in the finale – a theme with variations which included a waltz, pizzicato movement, a very dark lento, and a boisterous ending with hints of South American music.

 Sir Arthur Bliss’s Clarinet Quintet from 1931 was perhaps the best known of all the works performed during the afternoon session. The first movement (Moderato) was very much as he described it – “ a conversation” between the five instruments – and  euphonious, in which each instrument was able to  express its own character. The audience were then shaken out of their torpor by a wild and dramatic extended scherzo and then soothed by a lovely soothing Romance in which Vicky Wright exploited the sinuous clarinet part to excellent effectl. The final Allergo energico was played exactly as stated in the instructions with the violins in a particularly excitable mood.

 The predominantly secular Bliss was followed by the most spriitual of the works to be performed by the Goldfield Ensemble. The Rubbra Piano Trio (premiered at the Cheltenham Festival in 1950) was religious in tone,  its seriousness and intensity relieved only momentarily by a playful scherzo. Then followed a meditation of some profundity introduced by pianist James Sherlock and finally a bell-like peal.

 John Ireland achieved considerable success with his Violin Sonata No 2 in 1917 which clearly captured the mood of the time when news of the Battle of the Somme was causing utter desperation. He followed this up with his Piano Trio No 2 which shares its sense of doom.  A gloomy introduction on cello and piano creates a sense of emptiness and loss and the attempt of the violin to soar above the gloom and offer a ray of hope is quickly snuffed out. Ireland compared a march-like passage  with “the boys going over the top”; and as the tread of boots ebbs away the violin issues a heartfelt lament. This was a tremendously moving performance by Goldscheider, Turton and Sherlock.

 Nowadays we tend to associate Frank Bridge with the music he wrote after the Great War, so it was a great surprise to hear his Piano Quintet begun in 1904, the heyday of the Edwardian era, when hardly a cloud sullied the horizon. This work is essentially romantic in the best sense of the word with sensuous harmonies and plenty of passion. Yet I felt in the first movement that the musicians had not yet shaken off the starkness of Ireland’s trio and that the pace needed to be faster. The Adagio non troppo worked much better with James Sherlock’s sensitive piano playing setting the tone of this second movement, and the central scherzo section (inserted by the composer in 1912) provided a witty antidote to the overall seriousness to the music. The Allegro energico opened dramatically and provided plenty of endearing melodies and vitality.

 The other recent  work on the day’s programme was Ian Venable’s Canonzetta commissioned by the enterprising Bromsgrove and Droitwich Concert Clubs. (Other concert clubs in Britain please note!). The canzonetta was a musical piece popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, but Venables’ inspiration was Samuel Barber’s Canzonetta for Oboe and String Orchestra Op 48. It is a well crafted work which introduces material from his setting of Tennyson’s poem Break, break, break plus other ideas. Despite its ten minutes there is a wealth  deal of emotion in this work – wistfulness, desolation, and eventually excitement and jubilation.

 One had reason to expect the final work of the day, Howell’s Piano Quartet to be profoundly depressing. After all, it was composed in the middle of the First World War and doctors had warned that his days on earth were numbered owing to a heart condition. However, he proceeded with this magnifient piece undeterred.

 There was a strong pastoral feel to the first movement with its abundance of   folk melodies, yet one could discern elements of anger and war-weariness  bursting through. By contrast the Lento provided a mood of serenity gently introduced by the piano and taken up by the strings, although the sorrows and wretchedness of war hovered over the calm and the movement developed into an elegy for the fallen.

 The final movement – the third Allegro energico of the day – conjured up images of Merrie England on this unusually balmy April evening with people dancing on the villager green. Clearly Howells was far more optimistic than the doctors were and proved them wrong: instead of meeting an early end as they had predicted, he lived on for another 67 years!

 I hope the same holds true for the indefatigable members of the Goldfield Ensemble whose marathon labour of love produced several distinguished performances. Leader Nicola Goldscheider and cellist Toby Turton deserve  particular praise (and perhaps a holiday?), since they were involved in every work performed. Their combined efforts provided ample proof, if any were needed, that the English musical tradition is something to be proud of and worth cherishing.

 

Roger Jones

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