The Pleasures of Two Rare Quintets: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Louise Farrenc at the Quirinale

ItalyItaly Ralph Vaughan Williams, Quintet in C minor (1903); Louise Farrenc, Quintet in E no. 2 for piano and strings (1840): Quintetto Bottesini: Alessandro Cervo (violin) Federico Stassi (viola) Giacomo Menna (cello) Roberto Della Vecchia (double bass) Linda di Carlo (piano) Cappella Paolina of the Quirinale Palace Rome, RAI Tre Sunday Midday Concerts, 20.11.2011 (JB)

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was huge bear of a man, but modest and plagued with self-doubts through most of his life. At the time of the composition of the C minor quintet (1903), he had just returned from crossing the Channel for some composition lessons with Ravel. The Frenchman was amazed by RVW’s prodigious natural talent, declaring that he had little to teach the English bear and pleading with him not to attempt to write music which sounded like Ravel! RVW took that advice. He didn’t.

But when he is played by the Quintetto Bottesini, he can sound remarkably like Brahms. That is a pity. For when I heard the same quintet play the same programme at the Abbey of Fossanova this summer (report here: ), Brahms was much less in evidence.

The venue of the present concert may explain how the undesirable Brahmsian evidence came about.

Pre-Mussolini the Quirinale Palace was the residence of the Popes. Today, it houses the country’s Presidents. It was the Borghese Pope, Paul V (1605 -1621) who set about building the chapel which would be named after him – Cappella Paolina – and was built according to the same dimensions, as the Sistine Chapel (with the intention of doubling for the better known Chapel). Indeed, many a new Pope was chosen by the Conclave of Cardinals in the Cappella Paolina. I calculate there must be seating for about four hundred.

The acoustics are good in most parts of the hall. However, the performers are raised on a marble platform just in front of the altar and they tell me that here it is impossible to hear one another. That is a great blow when you are trying to perform chamber music where a sense of ensemble is essential. On Sunday morning, in an effort to overcome this defect they began to force, in order to increase the chances of communicating within the group. This only frustrated their efforts even further, and introduced a heaviness into the music – what I have called Brahmsian above. That heaviness was certainly not present in the ideal acoustics of the Fossanova Abbey. The Quintet were also perfectly together in Fossanova, whereas at the Quirinale the double bass would sometimes be a second or two early in an entry. More acoustic trickery?

All the same, the Quintet are well versed in Vaughan Williams’s style and the charm of the English folk-style melodies came through. RVW was also the author of a number of well-known hymn tunes, and in the Cappella Paolina more than a hint of this characteristic was audible.  Rome also had a full house which must have been encouraging to the players, while Fossanova had been very thinly attended. The Quirinale Sunday Morning Concerts are broadcast live by RAI Radio Tre and so reach a much wider audience than those in the Cappella Paolina.

Louise Farrenc (1804-1875) was a virtuoso pianist and first-rate composer. I find it hard to understand why her compositions have been so neglected. She was the first woman to teach piano at the Paris Conservatory though with less pay than her male colleagues. But she fought long and hard in a battle for equal pay and eventually won it.

Farrenc’s is much more extrovert music than Vaughan Williams, so while the acoustic can certainly not have helped the performers, it didn’t exactly hinder them either. Farrenc’s unmistakable musical energy came through with real aplomb – the intricacies of the counterpoint were a sheer joy. The scherzo fairly bristled with Mendelssonian mischief and the audience with their warm, prolonged applause left the players in no doubt as to which of the two Quintets they preferred.

Jack Buckley