Fine Music-Making from two thirds of the Gould Piano Trio

10/03/2017

Field, Rachmaninov: Benjamin Frith (piano), Alice Neary (cello). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 17.2.2017. (GPu)

John Field – Nocturnes, No.4 in A major, H.36; No.2 in C minor, H.25; Mo.14 in C major, H.25

Rachmaninov – Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, Op.19

This was one of fifteen concerts of chamber music give over four days (February 16-19), at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff, under the title ‘Twilight of the Tsars’, devoted to work by composers active in St. Petersburg in the years before the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as to works by composers admired or influential in the city during that period. Unfortunately, because of other commitments and ill-health I was able to get to only two of the concerts of which this was the first (a review of the other is to follow).

The Gould Piano Trio was at the heart of this Festival (as it has been of a number of other such festivals at the RWCMD. The trio (violinist Lucy Gould, pianist Benjamin Frith and cellist Alice Neary) were well-nigh omnipresent, whether performing as a trio or as individuals, or as members of the audience for concerts (including student concerts) in which they weren’t actually performing.

This particular concert was given by two members of the Gould Piano Trio. It opened with Benjamin Frith performing (very sensitively) three of John Field’s Nocturnes. The young Field accompanied Clementi (to whom he was apprenticed) on a European trip, which brought them to St. Petersburg early in the winter of 1802-3. Clementi left in June of 1803, but Field stayed on and lived in St. Petersburg (with some spells in Moscow) until 1831.

In St. Petersburg, Field made a strong impression as a teacher and performer, and was much admired in aristocratic circles. Significant students of his included Aleksandr Gurlyov, Aleksandr Dubuque and Mikhail Glinka; through them, and others, Field exerted a considerable influence on the development of Russian classical music (see Patrick Piggott, The Life and Music of John Field, 1973).  Field’s influence was not, of course, confined to Russia. In his programme notes for this concert, James Lea quoted some interesting comments on Field by Liszt:

“[Field] was the first to introduce a species which belonged to none of the established classes, and in which feeling and melody reigned alone, liberated from the fetters and encumbrances of a coercive form. He opened the way for all the productions which have since appeared under the title of songs without words, impromptus, ballads, etc., and to him we may trace the origin of those pieces designed to paint individual, and deep-seated emotions.”

Liszt himself prepared an important edition of Field’s Nocturnes and published his study Über John Fields Nocturne (Leipzig, 1859). In the passage quoted above,  the word ‘coercive’ is interesting: it implies that Field’s turning away from such forms was analogous to the movement of Romantic poetry and poetics from ‘mechanical’ (i.e. coercive?) to organic form. Coleridge, indebted to the ideas of Schlegel, wrote that “one character belongs to all true poets, that they write from a principle within, not originating in anything without”. He distinguished such ‘organic’ form from ‘mechanical’ form: “The form is mechanic when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material”.

In Benjamin Frith’s playing of three Nocturnes by Field one heard organic form to perfection, each piece seeming to unfold and open itself with a kind of naturalness different from (but not, of course, necessarily therefore superior to) the working out of a ‘coercive’ form such as the sonata. Frith captured to perfection the love-melancholy of the second Nocturne, without the kind of excess that makes it merely sentimental, rather than genuinely poetic, allowing the lyrical melodic line to speak for itself and respecting the simplicity of the piece’s design. No.4, unlike No.2, employs a clear ternary structure, albeit of a sort less rigid than in the forms Liszt referred to as ‘coercive’. Without exaggeration or over-emphasis, Frith gave some real weight to the passionate central section of the piece. Patrick Piggott (op.cit., p.122) observes that the principal melody of this nocturne “is an inspired piece of bel canto” and Frith’s articulation of the melody certainly supported such a view. No.14 is perhaps the finest of Field’s Nocturnes (at the least it is one of the chief candidates for such a title). Frith shaped phrases beautifully throughout and brought out what Liszt called the “dark tints” of the piece, while vivifying the whole with some apt variety of tempi and dynamics. The quality of these performances came as no great surprise, given his much-admired recordings of Field’s Piano Concertos. Still, these three pieces were good enough to make one hope that Frith might return the Nocturnes before too long.

No doubt it is no more than a nice coincidence that Rachmaninov’s great-grandfather was one of Field’s pupils. It would be over-subtle to argue that Field had much influence on the work of Sergei Rachmaninov. Certainly not in his Sonata for cello and piano, which made up the second half of this concert and for which Benjamin Frith was joined by the excellent Alice Neary. Where Field’s Nocturnes are essentially miniatures, this relatively youthful (premiered in 1901) sonata by Rachmaninov is conceived on a large scale and is almost symphonic in ambition, insofar as it seeks to encompass a huge range of emotions, from tenderness and sorrow to passionate joy.

The sonata presents problems of balance (both aesthetically, as it were, and practically, in performance). Rachmaninov preferred not to call it a Cello Sonata, believing the two instruments to be equally important to the work. Indeed, many have felt that the piano dominates the sonata. Max Harrison (Rachmaninoff, 2005, p.101) notes that “though the music is continually inventive, most of the invention comes from the piano, the writings for the cello …lacks the boldness of the keyboard part”. Yet he also comments (p.102) that “Op. 19 is about the string instrument pouring out its melodies over complex piano support”.

The four movements trace a trajectory (Steven Isserlis has called it “a journey of the soul”) from troubled struggle in the first movement to something like triumphant affirmation in the last – to quote Isserlis once more: “No bearded Russian priest with his Easter Cry ‘Christ is Risen’ can ever have sounded more triumphant than the cello does when it announces the glorious second theme pf this movement”.

Frith and Neary very largely did justice to the work’s ‘journey’. They were powerful and persuasive in the lengthy first movement with its effective (and sometimes rather startling) changes of mood and tempo. In the second movement (Allegro Scherzando) the cello has two beautiful melodies (the second theme in the scherzo, and in the trio) and Alice Neary played them with both precision of intonation and a sense of real spaciousness. It is in the third movement (Andante) that the writing seems to integrate the roles of pianist and cellist most completely in a movement that begins with a sense of very intimate emotion but builds to occupy grander, more universal, territory. In the bell-like sound of the piano and the insistent reiteration of single notes by the cello, one heard, as one should, both a sense of the emergence from personal trauma (the nervous breakdown from which Rachmaninov had only recently recovered) and the Church’s ‘mythos’ of salvation. Such limited reservations as I had about this performance came in the Finale (Allegro mosso), where Alice Neary didn’t sing out a sense of triumph quite as jubilantly as one might wish, and Benjamin Frith was a little inclined to ‘swamp’ his partner.

But, as so often, one left the hall with feelings of profound gratitude to the Gould Piano Trio (or, on this occasion, to two thirds of it) for yet another in a long line of fine readings of works in the chamber music catalogue (both well- and little-known) which audiences at the Royal Welsh College of Drama have been privileged to hear. I very much hope that their association with the College will last for many more years!

 Glyn Pursglove

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