United Kingdom Park Lane Young Artists Spring Series: Aike String Quartet (Soh-Yon Kim, Emily Harper (violins), Benjamin Harrison (viola), Karen French (cello)), The Hermes Experiment (Héloïse Werner (soprano), Oliver Pashley (clarinet), Anne Denholm (harp), Marianne Schofield (double bass)), Nardus Williams (soprano), Peter Foggitt (piano), Eblana String Trio (Jonathan Martindale (violin), Lucy Nolan (viola), Peggy Nolan (cello)). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 19.4.2016 and 21.4.2016. (MB)
Giles Swayne – Chansons dévotes and poissonneuses
Kurtág – Twelve Microludes, op.13
Blair Soler – Imaginings – Six pieces for string quartet
Josephine Stephenson – Tanka
Freya Waley-Cohen – Oyster
Kate Honey – Predator Fish
Stevie Wishart – Eurostar: A Journey in sound between cities (world premiere)
Brett Dean – String Quartet no.1, ‘Eclipse’
Robin Holloway – Killing Time
Joel Rust – Trio Trio Trio, for string trio (world premiere)
Holloway – String Trio
Othmar Schoeck – Wanderlieder, op.12
Lord Berners – Three English Songs
Morgan Hayes – Dictionary of London
Schoenberg – String Trio, op.45
St John’s, Smith Square played host week to no fewer than ten concerts in the Park Lane Group Young Artists Series. Each evening from Monday to Friday offered a short 6 p.m. concert, usually combined with an ‘in conversation’ event with a featured composer, followed by a 7.30 concert, in which that composer’s music would be programmed with that of other composers. I was only able to attend two 7.30 concerts, but was delighted to hear a wide range of music, from which only one work, Schoenberg’s String Trio, was familiar to me.
Tuesday’s concert began with a wonderful surprise: Giles Swayne’s witty Chansons dévotes and poissonneuses, a setting of verse by Georges Fourest. In French – although, somewhat oddly, we were only given English translations in the programme booklet – the songs also sounded very ‘French’ in style. In this performance by The Hermes Experiment, soprano, Héloïse Werner really used the words performatively: not just their meaning but their sound. Use of a clarinet (ravishingly played by Oliver Pashley) perhaps inevitably brought to mind Pierrot lunaire, but the vocal line had nothing to do with Schoenberg, or Sprechstimme. Indeed, there was something almost Ravelian to the vocal tapestry woven. This was tonal music that in no way sounded re-heated, ‘neo-tonal’. Following ‘The music-loving fish’, ‘The old saint’, at its opening, offered in its subtle archaism a splendid evocation of la vieille France; I loved the duetting of clarinet and double bass. Werner was not at all afraid to sound ugly when the text, literally, called for it: ‘Il est trop laid,’ if I remember correctly. The mock sadness of the final ‘Sardines in oil’ had us wondering, almost surreally, what was ‘real’ and what was not. A fine work I should be delighted to heart again, then, in equally fine performances.
Kurtág and Blair Soler followed, with works for string quartet (the Alke String Quartet). The opening cello note of Kurtág’s Microludes almost suggested Verklärte Nacht, but no, this was a very different path to be taken. Kurtág – and his performers – made us listen. Webern-like weighing of notes, in performance and work alike, gave us no other option. Integrity and importance of gesture were to the fore; harmonic turns always surprised and yet were always rendered meaningful. There was a harder-edged sound to Soler’s 2012 Imaginings. Bartók’s example loomed large, but not overwhelmingly: and is there a better example to follow? Intensity was the hallmark again of work and performance, whose furious manner proved compelling.
After the interval, there followed a series of short pieces – all, as it happens, by female composers, although nothing was made of that, and there was no reason why anything should. Josephine Stephenson’s 2016 Tanka (‘short poem’ in Japanese, apparently) proved a well-crafted scena. Freya Waley-Cohen’s Oyster made me think – perhaps irrelevantly – of Katie Mitchell’s Ophelias Zimmer, which ‘frees’ Ophelia from Hamlet. That ‘alchemy’ referred to in Octavia Bright’s text seemed musically to occur at just the same time. (I am afraid I cannot remember quite how, but there was certainly a welcome sense of the transformative.) Kate Honey’s Predator Fish was perhaps most striking to me for its moments of languor. Stevie Wishart’s Eurostar was far more experimental, apparently involving a considerable degree of improvisation. Werner was called upon to imitate the train as well as sing: all carried off with a splendid sense of performance art.
For the final work, we returned to the Alke Quartet. I cannot say I responded particularly fondly to Brett Dean’s First Quartet, but the fault may well have been mine. A slow, soft opening certainly captured attention. Sections were well demarcated. Otherwise, there seemed to be gestures which, by contrast with Kurtág, did not lead anywhere in particular. Forgettable, at least for me, I am afraid.
A movement from Robin Holloway’s Killing Time, for solo soprano, opened the second concert. (At least it seemed to be a single movement, for another text was provided in the booklet, but went unsung.) Nardus Williams proved a compelling performer in Holloway’s Auden setting, ‘As I walked out one evening’. Increasing yet never outrageous deviations from an initially folk-like setting intrigued, with telling, yet sparing, melismata particularly captivating in performance.
Joel Rust’s Trio Trio Trio, commissioned by the Park Lane Group with funds from the RVW Trust, received its world premiere. I had a keen sense of figures sparking off each other, if that makes any sense. (I am not sure that it does!) Material sounded highly contrasted, especially rhythmically. Moments of melancholy reminded me of an older English tradition, going back to Purcell and beyond. Holloway’s own String Trio received a performance of especial richness from the excellent players of the Eblana String Trio. Early on, I was put somewhat in mind of the Prokofiev of the Second Violin Concerto: more a matter of certain intervals than anything structural, but perhaps that was just my own private concern. There was much overlapping, whether in respect of solos or duos; passages in which all three players were heard together were not exactly few and far between, but nor were they a given. An ecstatic, not entirely un-Schoenbergian climax grabbed my attention.
Two songs by Othmar Schoeck followed the interval: the second and then the first of his op.12 Wanderlieder. The former sounded strikingly post-Schubertian, in a highly likeable performance from Williams and pianist, Peter Foggitt. Schumann seemed more of a guiding presence in the latter, perhaps Brahms too. ‘English with French affinities’ was how I thought of the songs by Lord Berners: entertaining and never overstaying their welcome. Morgan Hayes’s Dictionary of London received a vividly theatrical performance, befitting a piece which, to me, seemed at least equally vivid in its theatricality. Its witty shifting of musical moods left me wanting more: always, I hope, a good sign.
Finally, we heard that towering masterpiece of the chamber repertory, Schoenberg’s String Trio. (Why, o why, do we not hear it more often?) Febrile, intense, this was a fine performance indeed. Every note seemed to matter just as much as it would have done in Webern. One makes connections, of course, with composers such as Brahms and Mozart, and indeed with earlier Schoenberg, but there was no doubting here the new wine for new bottles (to borrow from Liszt). The players’ instrumental singing of Schoenberg’s lines, flexible yet ever goal-directed, would have drawn in the most sceptical of listeners; twelve-note Schoenberg would have been revealed to be just as worthy of their attention as any of the composer’s ‘freely atonal’ works. There was no doubting in performance either the work’s beauty or its formal dynamism. Developing variation was the thing – and how it unfolded here!