Rewarding Chamber Music by Charlotte Bray in Excellent Performances

17/10/2018

Bray and Meyer: Mariani Piano Quartet (Philipp Bohnen (violin), Barbara Buntrock (viola), Isang Enders (cello), Gerhard Vielhaber (piano)), Huw Watkins (piano). Purcell Room, London, 16.10.2018. (MB)

Charlotte Bray – Invisible Cities (2011); Beyond (2013)
Emilie Meyer – Piano Quartet no.2 in G major
Bray – Oneiroi (2013); On the Other Shore (2014); Zustände (2016)

In Aix this summer, I heard – and enthused about – Charlotte Bray’s new work for solo viola, In Black Light. I was therefore very keen to hear a concert back here in London, largely of her music; moreover, I was certainly not disappointed. Invisible Cities, the first piece on the programme, is also for viola, albeit with piano. Barbara Buntrock and Huw Watkins gave a performance full of nervous energy. Its first movement of four, marked ‘vivid, frenetic’, certainly proved vividly variegated, opening with memorable contrast and synthesis – I think – of post-Schoenbergian harmonies with jazzy-Gallic syncopation.  ‘Unnerved, intimate’ is the marking for the second movement and so again it proved, with an intangible yet unquestionable sense of development from its predecessor. Buntrock truly dug into the strings, preparing the way for what I hope it is not too Romantic to describe as organically developing third and four movements, the latter climactic in both anticipated and unanticipated ways. Piano repeated notes offered counterpoint according to various understandings, viola harmonics seemingly generative of new yet related material, music and performance (piano and pizzicato viola) eventually fading into nothing.

Beyond, for solo violin, was sensitively and indeed commandingly performed by Phillip Bohnen. It offered a nicely elegiac pendant to the preceding, longer work, considerable use of the violin’s lower register offering both continuity with and difference from the viola. Further continuity was to be found in an equally keen sense of longer line, silence included: again in a fashion reminiscent of, yet never to be assimilated to, much Austro-German Romanticism.

Emilie Meyer’s 1857 Piano Quartet in G major proved the only disappointment. That was not a matter of performance, the Maniari Piano Quartet doing everything one could reasonably have asked for. Although we could enjoy a lovely chamber music sound, there was little to the work ‘itself’. In the traditional four movements, it fared best when songful: pleasant enough, if hardly individual of voice. A few scattered passages aside, for instance the opening of the scherzo, the composer struggled to impart much in the way of formal dynamism or even coherence. What might have passed muster as background music overstayed its concert hall welcome.

Following the interval, however, there was to be more Bray – and most welcome it proved. First up, Watkins returned to perform Oneiroi for solo piano with what seemed to me an ideal match of passion and humanity. According to the composer, ‘its muse was principally other music, that of Hans Werner Henze and Oliver Knussen particularly’. Ghosts of Henze’s piano music I certainly heard: perhaps again that post-Schoenberg inheritance, or maybe that is just me? There seemed to be at work a fruitful, generative dialectic both in work and performance between (surface?) freedom and tight, underlying organisation.

On the Other Shore, for solo cello, received a fine performance from Isang Yenders. In Bray’s words, it ‘represents an idea … of observing something from afar whilst not able to get close to it’. That comes very close to what I imagined I heard: a sense of intimacy at distance, of coming into and falling out of focus. As with the earlier piece for solo violin, both the long line and its possible constructive allusions and illusions came strongly to the fore.

Finally, we heard Zustände for violin, viola, cello, and piano, performed by the Mariani players. Its three movements take inspiration from various ‘states’ – as in the title – of ice, the first ‘Brittle, frozen, slowly disintegrating’, the second ‘Freely, fiercely independent’ as a ‘majestic, lone iceberg’, the third ‘Bright, alert’, located, we are told, ‘within the highly energised, at times threatening, environment of an ice field’. There was certainly icy tension to be heard at the opening, imbued with a paradoxical, productive sense of desire, albeit thwarted, to suspend time. It moved, and rightly so. The piano was silent for most of the second movement, which seems to rise, aptly enough, from the cello line up. It is glacial, perhaps, in a way not dissimilar to some of Bartók’s music. Bray describes the final movement as ‘varied and unpredictable’. Once more, so it sounded in performance before I had so much as looked at the programme note. Control of material and the expressive means to which such control is put were never remotely in doub

t. Zustände and other solo and chamber works (Beyond, Invisible Cities, and On the Other Shore included) may be heard on a new RTF Classical/Nimbus Alliance CD: on this basis, highly recommended!

Mark Berry

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