Jenkinson-Frith Duo Even Better Second Time Round

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Glazunov, Rachmaninov: Richard Jenkinson (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano). St David’s Hall, Cardiff 2.4.2013 (GPu)

Stravinsky: Suite Italienne (arr. Stravinsky and Piatigorski)
Rachmaninov: Sonata for Piano and cello in G minor, Op.19
Glazunov: Chant du ménestrel

Just over two years ago I saw and heard these two performers play the very same programme (see review). The experience was sufficiently enjoyable for me to want to repeat it. Actually, these later performances were better still – more sharply etched with greater rhythmic bite and even more sense of instrumental interplay. Before the performance began, Richard Jenkinsson explained that his pianist partner had been unwell and had spent a sleepless night with sickness. However, I am pleased to report that Benjamin Frith’s performance showed no ill effects.

The cello and piano version of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne came about as the result of a whole series of metamorphoses and rewritings. It was Diaghilev, via a letter from Ernest Ansermet to Stravinsky, who prompted the initially reluctant composer to mine the music of Pergolesi (both genuine and spurious) to put together a ballet score, with a commedia dell’ arte libretto. Stravinsky agreed and his reworking of the Pergolesian materials became the music for the ballet Pulcinella, premiered in Paris on May 15 1920. The score contains some 20 items. A suite of 8 items was also produced, in 1922. In 1925 Stravinsky, in collaboration with Paul Kochanski prepared another version Suite d’après des themes, fragments et morceaux de Giambattista Pergolesi for violin and piano, which contained transcriptions of six pieces from the ballet (Introduzione -Serenata – Tarantella – Gavotta con due variazione – Scherzino – Minuetto and Finale). In the early 1930’s Stravinsky worked with Gregor Piatigorsky to produce this Suite Italienne for cello and piano (Introduzione – Serenata – Aria – Tarantella, Minuetto and Finale). In truth the amount of ‘Stravinsky’ increased as the process went on (and the proportion of ‘Pergolesi’ declined. So, for example, the Aria in the Suite Italienne begins with rhythmic materials far more Russian than Italian, even if one hears something more Italian in (unsurprisingly) the Tarantella. What all the music shares is a lively wit and sophistication and a good deal of joie de vivre.

To all these qualities and idioms, Frith and Jenkinson responded admirably. The Serenata was invested with a sweep of gesture which remained elegant, the interweaving of cello,line and piano accompaniment especially adroit. The Russian inflections at the opening of the Aria were forceful without excess or ponderousness and the Tarantella and the vivace Finale both had real rhythmic bite. The sense of the dance was never far away throughout, making for an inviting and absorbing reading of a valuable piece – in itself and in terms of its place in the development of Stravinsky’s ‘neoclassical’ manner.

Rachmaninov’s Sonata is an altogether heavier work; there is not much dancing here. Its Russianness, one might say its ‘Rachmaninovness’, has more to do with a journey from darkness to light and to its communication (without explicit musical allusion) of much of the spirit of the Russian Orthodox Church – not least in the richness and weight of instrumental colour and some almost bell-like sonorities (and I don’t think it is fanciful to hear affinities with the Dies Irae in the opening of the first subject in the first movement. Richard Jenkinson’s performance throughout was intense and passionate. His instrument – made by Grancino in Milan around 1692 – was particularly beautiful in its middle and lower range and contributed to the a well-balanced sound in which Benjamin Frith resisted any temptation or tendency to let the piano part become excessively dominant. One was impressed, rather by the contrapuntal dialogue of the two instruments in the Andante. In the closing Allegro mosso the cello was properly dominant, especially in the radiant declaration of the joyous second theme, a thoroughly positive affirmation after the more conflicted first movement. Recent listening to this Sonata has made me realise its weight and depth and this performance certainly contributed to my increasing sense of the work’s greatness.

By way of encore we were treated to the very different ‘Russianness’ of Glazunov’s Chant du ménestrel, romantically tender and nostalgic, more overtly ‘nationalistic’ and possessed of considerable melodic charm, its brevity and undemanding nature, its relative lack of weight making it a fine ‘warm-down’ after the rigours of the Rachmaninov, demanding, as it does, much less in the way of concentration or emotional investment for the listener.

This was a lunchtime concert full of emotional power and technical accomplishment, a fine hour of Russian chamber music on a Welsh spring day. I shall be happy if I don’t have to wait another two years to hear the Jenkinson Frith Duo again.

Glyn Pursglove