Cheltenham Music Festival: Getting to Know a New Generation of Musicians

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert, Brahms, Dvořák,Gossek, A Panufnik, Vaughan Williams, Ravel, Debussy, Bacevicz: BBC New Generation Artists, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 8-10.7.2014 9 (RJ0)

 Over the last 15 years or so the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists Scheme has nurtured around 100  young musicians, including the likes of Natalie Clein (cello), Alina Ibragimova, Alison Balsom (trumpet), the Belca Quartet, Paul Lewis (piano and and Steven Osborne (piano), whose careers are now flourishing. Three recitals at this year’s Cheltenham Festival offered an opportunity to hear some members of the latest crop –  Lise Berthaud (viola) and pianists Zhang Zuo and Louis Schwizgebel – as well as others who are now in their second year on the scheme: Robin Tritschler (tenor), Elena Orioste (violin) and the Apollon Musagète Quartet [Pavel Zalejski (violin), Bartosz Zachlod (violin), Piotr Szumiel (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)].

The first recital opened with a charming performance of Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for piano duet played by Zhang Zuo and Louis Schwizgebel.  After this Zhang Zuo partnered Elena Arioste in Brahms’ Sonata No 1 in G for violin and piano. This is Brahms at his most lyrical and  although the performance had its strong points, notably in lugubrious Adagio, there seemed a lack of balance and rapport between the two musicians. I suspect that the technically brilliant Zhang Zuo is more comfortable in a solo role – in the works of Rachmaninov and Chopin, perhaps?I But it is early days and the experience she gains on the BBC Scheme will no doubt develop her skills as an ensemble musician.

Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No 2 in E flat concluded the first recital in which the three musicians already mentioned were joined by Lise Berthaud and the very experienced Guy Johnston. While the performance had its strengths, the musicians seemed to be playing as individuals rather than as a team. This was particularly the case in the finale which they played with tremendous glee and energy but losing some of the subtleties of the music along the way. It was not a bad performance, but with a period of intensive rehearsal it could have been a very good performance.

I had no such qualms about the Apollon Musagète Quartet who met when studying at Vienna University and have been playing together for a number of years. They opened the second recital of the series with an engaging performance of the String Quartet in A Op 15 No 6 by the Belgian composer François-Joseph Gossec – the first composer, incidentally, to publish string quartets in Paris. The two movement piece had an elegant melodic flow reminiscent of J C Bach, the second movement bearing the intriguing title Englese. This turned out to be a dance movement in 2/4 time reminiscent of a jig – and I suppose it sounded English after a fashion.

It was particularly pleasing to hear the Quartet perform the String Quartet No 1 by their compatriot Sir Andrzej Panufnik whose centenary is being observed at this year’s Festival. This is an unconventional piece starting with a prelude in which the individual instruments play snatches of notes independently of one another, each taking on a particular character. The first violin is aggressive, the second is ironic and witty, the viola pompous and the cello “calmly philosophical”.  The long second movement took on a more conventional guise and was  contemplative and elegiac in nature. After its hymn-like close a brisk finale with dancing rhythms revisited the earlier themes and led to a “dash to the finish”.

Robin Tritschler was the final New Generation Musician to appear at this year’s Festival and impressed the audience with his velvet voice and superb German diction. Every sentence, every word was imbued with meaning, but there was nothing forced about his singing of such Lieder as Der Einsame and Alinde. The intensity of Die Liebe hat gelogen was followed by a sense of wonder in Die Sterne. Louis Schwizgebel proved to be an exceptional accompanist – so empathetic one almost forgot he was there.  (If there’s any soloist or ensemble out there in search of a pianist you should beat a path to his door!)

The climax of the recital brought together all the musicians in a performance of Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge in the original chamber music version, which is in many ways preferable to the orchestrated score. Although all the instrumentalists were newcomers to Vaughan Williams’ music, this did not show in this magnificent performance. The centre of attraction was Robin Tritschler who conveyed Housman’s bitter sweet words with honesty and  compassion. I suspect a few tears were shed during Bredon Hill as winter chilled the bones and  the piano tolled the solitary funeral bell.

In the final recital Louis Schwizgebel came into his own as a soloist in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.  This was a refreshing performance which insinuated itself on the consciousness. In Ondine he brought an appealing luminosity to his playing in which one could readily imagine the play of light on the water; and how well he brought out the sense of mystery and foreboding in his gentle playing of Le gibet! Scarbo was altogether more showy – witty, grotesque, fast and highly virtuosic, and what a clever idea it was to follow Ravel with Debussy’s  L’isle joyeuse – a glittering end to some impressive performances!

But that was not the final appearance of the versatile M Schwizgebel, for he returned to the platform to assist the Apollon Musagète in the Piano Quintet No 1 by the Polish woman composer Grazyna Becewicz.  This work was a revelation and I would like to say more about it. But time is pressing and I can only briefly commend the commitment and ardour that Apollon Musagète Quartet demonstrated in this work. They concluded with Dvořák’s String Quartet in C (his11th) for which one word suffices to described their playing: superb.

Roger Jones

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