Danish Ensemble Celebrates 70th Birthdays of Metcalf and Vasks

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vale of Glamorgan Festival 4 – Metcalf, Penderecki, Vasks: Ensemble MidtVest, All Saints Church, Penarth, 18.5.2016. (PCG)

John MetcalfNot the stillness (1998); Rest in reason, move in passion (1995); Ynys Las (2004)

Krzystof PendereckiPrelude (1987)

Pēteris Vasks – Piano Quartet (2001)

This varied programme by various personnel drawn from the skilled Danish Ensemble Midtvest served not only as a seventieth birthday celebration for John Metcalf and Pēteris Vasks, both featured composers in this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival, but also demonstrated John Metcalf’s skill as musical director of the Festival in constructing concerts that, while consisting entirely of music by contemporary composers, draw substantial and appreciative audiences; the nave of the large church was very nearly full.

John Metcalf’s programme note for Not the stillness explained that his work was written for the same combination of instruments as Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of Time; and here the four players – violin, cello, clarinet and piano – were distributed around the church in geographical isolation, with the clarinet playing from a couple of rows behind my seat. This meant that the balanced blend between the instruments was not ideal, the nearby clarinet dominating the harmonising but more distant violin; and later the melody in the cello on the far side of the church, rising to an ecstatic climax, was somewhat obscured by the sustained notes on the nearby clarinet which provided a framework for it. The coda of the work formed a very beautiful postscript after the music had seemingly died away into silence; and the conclusion, when it finally arrived, was properly affirmative. I understand from the composer that these same performers will shortly be going into the studio to record Metcalf’s pieces featured here; the disc, when it arrives, should make the structural balance clearer and will repay the attention of listeners.

After this Penderecki’s brief three-minute Prelude for clarinet solo (still placed just behind me) made quite a stark contrast, rising from a still and almost static opening to a cadenza-like sort of freneticism. Only towards the very end, with a brief burst of fluttertongue, was there a hint of Penderecki’s avant-garde roots.

The players were gathered together in front of the choir stalls for John Metcalf’s piano trio Rest in reason, move in passion. In his programme note the composer noted that he had viewed the medium of the trio “with reserve” because of its nineteenth century resonances; and in the event the fourth variation with its lush folk-song like melody accompanied by rippling piano arpeggios (very moving) did conjure up images of chamber music by Fauré and even Rachmaninov, although the extraordinarily beautiful results were amply justified. At the other extreme, the end of the piece evoked the still character of Arvo Pärt; and the variations featuring pizzicato strings had a feather-light jazzy quality. This work is already available on CD, but I look forward to the new recording with these players. This is a very imaginative piece indeed, as indeed was the composer’s nocturne Ynys Las (the Welsh title means “Blue Island”) , and movingly beautiful miniature for cello and piano with a plangent melody rising over rich piano writing. The piece comes from a suite entitled Transports – and it certainly transported the audience.

The evening concluded with the six-movement Piano Quartet by Pēteris Vasks, also present in the audience to receive well-deserved applause. But the work itself seemed rather uneven during the course of its lengthy progress (well over half an hour). After a brief opening Preludio where the open strings sounded uncomfortably like a structured sort of tuning up before a folk-like melody emerged, we were launched into a series of Danze which reminded me of a Scandinavian midsummer bonfire I attended many years ago; the individual dances are fragmentary in form, continually breaking off only to begin anew, until they finally collapse out of sheer (alcoholic?) abandon. This was all great fun, but the third movement, Canti drammatici, was much more serious. Here chorale-like passages were interspersed with cadenzas for each of the stringed instruments, all playing in double-stopping like a demented sort of Bach suite (possibly written for the Hardanger fiddle). This movement too was a great success, but I did harbour doubts about the next section described as Quasi una passacaglia.

I am not sure how a movement can be described as quasi in this way – either a structure is a passacaglia, or it is not – but the simple repetition of the theme was surrounded by music which seemed to be somewhat divorced from it both in mood and style, and the string glissandi came dangerously close to evoking images of a distant police siren. This movement seemed indeed to come from a different world from the rest of the quartet; but all was immediately forgiven when the fifth movement, Canto principale, arrived. The melodic material presented by the string trio with an accompaniment of resonant and raptly still chords on the piano rose to an impassioned climax of extraordinary force and emotion. As the music reached an ecstatic peak it was abruptly truncated and we moved into the Postludio, a drained rumination on the preceding material. This again was a very beautiful work, which I was surprised to find Peter Burwasser in Fanfare describing as not “easy listening” when reviewing the recording by the Parnassus Trio; I would have thought this music, although not light in tone (although it has its light moments in the second movement) had an immediate appeal to audiences; and indeed the applause at the end here was substantial indeed. I look forward to hearing the world première of Vasks’s Violin Concerto to be given in the final concert of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival on 20 May – when we will also have the chance to become re-acquainted with John Metcalf’s Cello Symphony. Happy birthday to both composers – long may they flourish!

Paul Corfield Godfrey


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