For the Love of Brahms: A Feast of Chamber Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Brahms, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann: The Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Frith, piano), Pamela Helen Stephens (mezzo), David Adams (violin, viola), Naomi Thomas (violin), Scott Dickinson (viola), Robert Plane (clarinet), Tim Thorpe (French horn), Naomi Thomas (violin), Rosie Biss (cello), Staff and Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 29-30 October 2011.

Under the title ‘For the Love of Brahms’, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama hosted an exhilarating weekend of Chamber music by Brahms (with the addition of just one or two pieces by Robert and Clara Schumann). On offer was something in the order of nine hours music on the first day and eight hours on the second. But the quality mattered more than the quantity, naturally, and with the Gould Piano Trio providing the spine (one might as readily say the heart) of the festival the quality was consistently high. The idea was mooted that this might be the first of a series of annual events of the same kind – I very much hope that will prove possible.

There was outstanding music, and outstanding music-making, to be heard at every turn. Saturday began with the Gould Piano Trio playing the Trio in C major, Op.87 and from the spacious opening of the initial allegro onwards the quality of the instrumental dialogue in the work of these three musicians, who have played together for some years, was immediately evident. The tender and yearning music of the adagio was a delight, the voices of violin and cello answering one another, intertwining, like those of duet lied, Benjamin Frith (as he did all weekend) fitting himself perfectly to the constantly changing role that the piano is required to play in this music. The third movement scherzo elicited some splendidly dancing phrasing, and the allegro giocoso finale was characterised by some very effective dynamic contrasts and by that delightful sense of musicians really listening to one another, uniting their voices (without sacrificing any of them) to a whole that was considerably more than just the sum of the parts. The Trio were joined by David Adams (violin) and Scott Dickenson (viola) for an equally fine performance of the Piano Quintet in F minor, Op.34, In the opening allegro the judgement of tempo was perfect and in the passages that have an almost concertante feel to them, the playing of Benjamin Frith, in dialogue with the constantly changing textures of the strings, was a model of lucidity and architectural sense. This is a long first movement, full of both cloud and light, and this was a performance which left the listener aware of the degree to which Brahms was leaving open alternative emotional possibilities for what was to follow. The far ‘sweeter’ opening of the ensuing andante made for a striking contrast, but even here the sweetness was never complacent, never altogether untroubled and the manner in which the ‘weight’ of viola and cello balanced the aspirational lightness of the violins did justice to the music’s ambiguity. There was a relishing of the quirky scherzo, its march-like subject almost parodically fierce. In the finale, the earlier music’s varying possibilities coexist rather than being wholly resolved and this was a passionate and exciting reading of a remarkable movement. After a short break some of us were back in the hall for a masterclass by mezzo Pamela Helen Stephens with young singers from the College. It was obvious that there was some impressive – if not yet, naturally, fully disciplined or fully mature – voices amongst the students, who had already benefited from three intense days of work with Simon Lepper. Stephens’s guidance and prompting, much of it concerned with the imagination needed by the singer of lieder, with the grounding of characterisation and implied personality in careful attention to text, with the need to be willing to temper the desire for sheer beauty of vocal line with committed responsiveness to textual detail – evidently had its effects. Later in the afternoon these same singers (and a few others) gave an informal recital of songs by Brahms in the Foyer outside the Dora Stoutzker Hall. Without exception these later performances had a greater degree of emotional and psychological investment than the earlier ones; highlights (omission here is not meant as any kind of criticism – I enjoyed the whole recital) included Sian Newman’s ‘Vergebliches Standchen’, Holly-Anna Lloyd’s ‘Von ewiger Liebe’ and the charmingly mischievous reading of ‘Die Schwestern’ by Philippa Scammell and Sian Newman. Not that the talent amongst the College’s students is only to be found amongst the singers. An afternoon programme that included Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano, the same composer’s Trio (for piano, violin and cello), Robert Schumann’s Fantasiesttucke Op.73 and Drei Rromanzen, as well as Brahms’s Sonatensatz, had already shown of the talents of some of the College’s instrumentalists. There was nothing on offer here that wasn’t, at the very least, pleasurable listening. If only because I didn’t previously know the work and because I found its contrapuntal writing fascinating, the performance I most enjoyed was that of Clara Schumann’s Trio, by violinist Lydia Marshall, cellist Carys James and pianist Dongfang Song.

The exigencies of the railway timetable meant, sadly, that I had to miss part of the evening programme. Regrettably, I was unable to hear performances of the Piano Quarter in G minor, op.25 and the wonderful late Clarinet Quintet. Friends who were able to hear these performances assured me that they were up to the high standards set elsewhere in the programme. Before leaving I was, at least, able to hear two of the three works which Brahms wrote during a Swiss holiday in the summer of 1886 – the Violin Sonata in A major (Op.100) and the Piano Trio in C minor (Op.101). The A major Violin Sonata is a particularly interesting work, formally and harmonically speaking, not least in the way in which its central movement frames a fast section between two slow sections, inverting in miniature the larger structure of fast-slow-fast movements. The whole plays some elaborate games of harmony and structure, but never lets them totally subordinate the lyricism (and deceptive simplicity) of some of the writing and the dramatic quality of other parts of the score. Years of assured familiarity with one another’s musical make-up, a kind of shared quality of intuition, were obvious in the playing of Lucy Gould and Benjamin Frith. Such qualities were certainly no less prominent when they were joined by Alice Neary in Opus 101. This is Brahms at something like his most concentrated, a work of uncharacteristic brevity, full of passionate complexity. The playing of the opening allegro was certainly every bit as ‘energico’ as the score requests, in a richly characterised reading which ‘hid’ its very considerable discipline behind an illusion of near abandonment. The result was stunning. The following Presto had the intimacy of conversation, a conversation quite without garrulity, trimmed of all that was in any way redundant. The andante grazioso was enchanting, relaxed without any loss of structural tightness of the slightest sign of formal looseness. The closing allegro was taken at a considerable pace, exciting and intense, but devoid of mere display.

Sunday morning began with a student performance in the College Foyer of the Piano Quartet in C minor (Opus 60), a performance of impressive assurance and maturity, given by Tianhong Yang (piano), Catherine Lawler (violin), Peter Brewster (viola) and Benjamin Jones (cello). Moving inside the splendid Dora Stoutzker Hall, the hardworking Gould trio, complemented by Pamela Helen Stephens, David Adams (playing viola on this occasion) and Timothy Thorpe gave a programme made up of the cello Sonata in F (Op.99), the Viola Songs (Op.91) and the Horn Trio (Op.40). It was immediately obvious that the high musical standards which had characterised the previous day were not going to be allowed to lapse. Indeed, the performance of the Cello Sonata was one of the highlights of the weekend, played with authority from the opening bar; how thoroughly fitted to the instrument is Brahms’s writing for the cello (on which he was a competent performer in his youth) is infallibly clear throughout his work, especially so in this sonata. The work of both Benjamin Frith and Alice Neary was exemplary, Neary’s dynamic range impressive in the opening allegro vivace, a movement full of contrasts of tempo and dynamics; Neary’s pianissimo work was especially ravishing and persuasive in this opening movement and in the adagio which follows her shaping of melodic line was a repeated joy. The dialogue of piano and cello in the second allegro was engrossing and the final movement was an object lesson in the retention of lyricism at quicker tempos. Pamela Helen Stephens gave eloquent, psychologically perceptive readings of ‘Gestillte Sehnsucht’ and ‘Geistliches Wigenlied’. At the beginning of the first song there were some minor problems of balance, but once these had been resolved the interplay of piano and viola with voice was well judged, nowhere more so than in the tender closing cadences of ‘Gestillte Sehnsucht’. In ‘Geistliches Wigenlied’ David Adams’s articulation of the viola melody was beautiful and Pamela Helen Stephens made one forget, at least briefly, that one was listening to a singer on stage as she ‘became’ the mother who speaks in Emanuel von Geibel’s text and Brahms’s music. Those who hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with any regularity know how fine a horn player Tim Thorpe is. It was a genuine pleasure to hear him in this more intimate setting, joining Lucy Gould and Benjamin Frith in a performance of the Horn Trio (Op.40), a performance in which the instrumental balance and integration was impeccable, and the interpretation consistently sensitive to the work’s subtle balance of emotions, not least in the second movement’s juxtaposition of joy and sorrow. The third movement’s music of troubled vacancy and disengagement (the piece was amongst those written in response to the death of the composer’s mother) and the vivacious last movement, music that speaks of a re-engagement with society, were alike persuasive and eloquent.

A master class with clarinettist Robert Plane and viol player Scott Dickinson took student clarinettists Alexandra Healey and Darius Grey and violists Mary Kelly and Benjamin Newton through movements from the Opus 120 sonatas (the two student pianists, Zi Wang and Oksana Lipinski did an excellent job, and coped well with the abrupt changes of direction, stops and starts, that a master class inevitably involves). For the listener/viewer the most fascinating part of the exercise was hearing what Plane and Dickinson had to say about the suitability of these sonatas for their respective instruments. What might have been a fight for ‘possession’ turned into something more illuminating, in the mutual recognition of common ground and the opportunity for viola players to learn from clarinettists and vice-versa. An entertaining (and instructive) event, labelled ‘Sextet Swapshop’ followed. Two groups, one made up of professionals – Lucy Gould and Naomi Thomas (violins), David Adams and Scott Dickinson (violas), Alice Neary and Rosie Biss (cellos) – and one of students – Mate Racz and Shin-Yun Shao (violins), Benjamin Newton and Robert Tuson (violas), Kirsten Miller and Rachel Williams (cellos) – interchanged personnel in a partial performance of the B flat Sextet (Op.18). Students mixed with professionals; there was lively discussion of actual and possible ways of playing particular passages; there were questions and (sometimes) answers; it all made for stimulating viewing and listening and was, one trusts, of real value to the fortunate students.

Next up, in the foyer outside were the 21 Hungarian Dances, played by a series of piano duets made up of students from the Keyboard Department, supplemented on a couple of occasions by Richard McMahon, Head of that Department, and by student violinist Will Shaw who played Joseph Joachim’s arrangements of the fourth and fifth dances. There were plenty of infectious rhythms, more than a little wit of phrase and emphasis. It was no surprise to hear Benjamin Frith, sitting in the audience, utter several ‘Bravos!’ (It was characteristic of the friendly and supportive atmosphere that characterised the whole weekend that most of the professional musicians spent a lot of the time when they weren’t playing attending one another’s and, especially, the students’ performances).

The Grand Finale came with a closing concert made up of the Clarinet Trio (Op.114), the B flat String Sextet (Op.18) and the B major Piano Trio (Opus 8 ) in its revised form. The Clarinet Trio, one of those late works inspired, after Brahms had judged his composing days to be behind him, by hearing Richard Mühlfeld, clarinettist of the Meiningen orchestra, play Weber, Mozart and Spohr. As played here, by Robert Plane, Alice Neary and Benjamin Frith, the extraordinary subtlety of Brahms’s blending of instrumental tones was beautifully realised and the balance of grace and weight in the adagio was exquisite, without the slightest preciousness. In the andantino grazioso the three musicians, by turns following and leading, always conscious of the role required of them at a particular stage in the movement, achieved a seamless integration of line and colour, a kind of sublimated waltz. The passion and energy of the closing allegro was more straightforwardly exhilarating. One’s pleasure in a surefooted performance of the early String Sextet was certainly enhanced by earlier attendance at the ‘Sextet Swapshop’; having heard what the members of the sextet had had to say about their understanding of the music, having heard their suggested nuances of certain phrases and passages, sharpened one’s ears for the full performance. The sense of music played by friends, shared by friends, which was strong throughout the weekend, seemed particularly forceful here in the sextet. The interchanges of role, the complements (and compliments) of musical call and response, had about them a sense of relaxed conversation even in the lively dance rhythms which permeate most of the work. It was fitting that the Gould Piano Trio, who had made such an enormous contribution to the undoubted success of the weekend, should finish events (as they had started them) alone on stage, to play the Revised Version of the Piano Trio in B major. As Alice Neary observed from the stage, this was a fitting work to end being, as it were, both an early work (begun as early as 18540 and a late work (revised by Brahms in 1891). It reflected, in a way, that mixture of freshness and maturity which had characterised so much in the Festival, in its blending of the music making of the College’s students (nicely described as ‘Young Artists’ in the Festival programme) with that of some seasoned (but far from elderly!) professionals. All three members of the trio have their chance to shine at different moments in this Trio and it was good to be able to reflect on all that they had contributed to an exhilarating weekend as, metaphorically, they took their time in the spotlight and as, above all, they played as a thoroughly cohesive musical unit, intuitively familiar colleagues whose extensive shared experience was in no danger of making their musical relationships remotely stale or unduly comfortable. It made for an impressive conclusion and how much they and their work had been appreciated was clear from the audience’s lengthy and loud applause.

Hearing so much of the chamber music of Brahms in quick succession – and so well played – confirmed that like most great artists (composers, writers or whatever) Brahms has a distinctive creative personality, so that his works share a kind of shared genetic imprint, and are yet all of them, paradoxically, different one from another. Within a few bars one realises it is Brahms, but that recognition doesn’t allow one to predict precisely what will happen next. Each work is, simultaneously, stamped with a recognisable autograph (as it were) and is capable of surprising us; the larger body of the composer’s work is united and diverse.

It is much to be hoped that there will be further such Festivals (it isn’t hard, after all, to think of composers whose contribution to chamber music would be richly served, and would offer rich rewards, if made the subject of such a weekend). From other audience comment I know I wasn’t alone in feeling sincere gratitude to the members of the Gould Piano Trio, for their playing and for their curating of this Festival. I hope that all the hard work won’t put them off attempting something similar and that the College’s finances will allow them to do so.

Glyn Pursglove