United Kingdom Three Choirs Festival (8) – Korngold, Elgar: The Aronowitz Ensemble [Nadia Wijzenbeek (violin), Tom Hankey (violin), Rosalind Ventris (viola), Marie Macleod (cello), Tom Poster (piano)], Pershore Abbey, Pershore, 30.7.2014 (RJ)
Erich Korngold: Piano Quintet in E, Op 15
Edward Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor, Op 84
Although choral performances tend to predominate at Britain’s oldest music festival – next year it celebrates its tercentenary – there has always been a place in it for instrumental music, especially chamber music, with several recitals held in and around the host city. So on a sunny afternoon I found myself bound for the town of Pershore, which bestrides Shakespeare’s Avon (not the mighty River Severn on which Worcester stands). The recital by the Aronowitz Ensemble took place in the chancel of Pershore’s ancient Abbey, all that remains of what must have been an enormous edifice in medieval times.
The two piano quintets were composed within three years of each other, but there the similarity ends. Korngold was on his way up in the world; he had seen active service in the Austrian army in the First World War and by his early twenties had already composed a successful opera, Die tote Stadt. Elgar, exactly 50 years his senior, was not living for the future; instead, he was looking back and coming to terms with the aftermath of the War and the pain it had caused.
Korngold’s Piano Quintet predates by over a decade his career in Hollywood where he wrote his famous film scores, but the flamboyance and Romantic extravagance we associate with films like Sea Hawk are already evident in his Quintet. A brilliant pianist, he played the piano part himself at the work’s premiere, and Tom Poster needed all the virtuosity at his disposal to tackle its demands – which he did magnificently. But the other musicians also had to summon up all their skills in the bold, upward leaping, luxuriant opening theme of the first movement. The temperature dropped in the dreamier second subject which incorporated a stunning cello passage. The second movement is a set of nine variations on the song Mond, so gehst du wieder auf (Moon, you rise again) – the third of his Abschiedslieder (Songs of Farewell). Each of the variations overflowed with imagination and ingenuity and one occasionally detected the influence of Mahler, who had encouraged the young Korngold to compose. The finale was a good humoured rondo which began dramatically with the piano and violin and then bounced along with plenty of changes of tempo and mood leading up to a dazzling violin cadenza from the accomplished Nadia Wijzenbeek. The Quintet, excellently played, revealed a side to Korngold which people are not aware of: as a superb composer of chamber music. I hope the Aronowitz bring more of this to our notice.
When Elgar lived in Sussex he could see from his studio a group of dead Spanish chestnut trees in Bedham Copse which according to legend were the figures of a group of Spanish monks who had been struck down by lightning their arms uplifted. The sense of foreboding and mystery the trees inspired in him could be sensed in the opening of his Quintet with its austere piano theme reminiscent of plainchant. The ensemble brought out the dark sonorities and tonal richness of the movement which built up to an exhilarating climax. after which the sense of mystery took over again. The Aronowitz Ensemble seemed very much at ease with the beautiful Adagio; nothing was rushed and the music was treated with respect and tenderness. There was a wistfulness at the start of the finale but gradually a more confident, almost martial theme emerged stopping occasionally to review and rework the ideas that had previously appeared. The ghostly monks came back to take a bow, as it were, before an energetic and forceful Elgarian climax of orchestral proportions took over.
A concert in Elgar country is likely to attract many discerning Elgarians who would not take kindly to a bunch of interlopers taking liberties with the music of their local composer. The sustained and enthusiastic applause indicated that the Aronowitz had not only played the work well but had captured the essential spirit of Elgar. One wonders if he had sneaked in to hear the performance!