United Kingdom Jonathan Dove, Janáček & Mendelssohn: Philippe Sly (baritone), Dante Quartet (Krysia Osostowicz and Oscar Perks [violins], Yuko Inoue [viola], Richard Jenkinson [cello]), Kings Place, London, 12.2.2017. (CS)
Jonathan Dove – Who Wrote the Book of Love? for baritone & string quartet
Janáček – String Quartet No.2 (Intimate Letters)
Mendelssohn – String Quartet in A Minor Op.13 No.2
I hadn’t heard the Dante Quartet perform for some time and, browsing through the ‘London Chamber Music Sundays’ brochure, this programme at Kings Place immediately appealed because it offered me two of my chamber music favourites alongside a new work by Jonathan Dove, whose writing for the voice is always deeply communicative and engaging.
Being a pragmatist rather than a ‘romantic’, I did not notice that what I assumed were three independent works which happily had found their way onto the same recital programme, were in fact linked by a common theme – or, as the Kings Place website put it, were ‘inspired by Valentine’s Day’. Jonathan Dove’s Who Wrote the Book of Love? sets seventeen lyrics by Alasdair Middleton, each of which explore the nature of love through a different poetic mode – ‘Greek Love’, ‘Persian Love’, ‘Gallant Love’, ‘Cold Love’, ‘Gypsy Love’, and so on. Janáček’s second quartet, was subtitled ‘Listy důvěrné’ (Intimate Letters), alluding to his passionate correspondence of more than 700 letters with Kamila Stösslová, the somewhat indifferent ‘Muse’ who inspired the creative fecundity and invention of the composer’s later years. Mendelssohn’s A minor quartet was based on his song on the theme of love ‘Ist es wahr?’ (‘Is it true?’).
I can’t say that I was particularly aware of a ‘common thread’ during the performance, but I was struck by the integrity and consistency of the Dante Quartet’s playing and by the seductiveness of Dove’s and Middleton’s sometimes wry, sometimes playful, sometimes earnest, sometimes melancholy expressive palette.
Who Wrote the Book of Love? was written in 2013, but this performance was announced as the ‘public’ premiere of the work. Some Googling led me to understand that a private performance had taken place at the Menier Chocolate Factory in spring 2014; and an hour-long YouTube documentary, filmed by Mathieu Sly – brother of bass-baritone Philippe – and uploaded in April 2015, charts the rehearsal process.
The song-cycle finds Dove working once again with long-term collaborator Middleton: together the pair have created Diana and Actaeon (for the Royal Ballet); the church opera The Walk from the Garden; the operas Life Is A Dream, Mansfield Park, Swanhunter, The Adventures of Pinocchio and The Enchanted Pig; and the cantata On Spital Fields. Most recently, their European-wide community project The Monster in the Maze has brought together the Berliner Philharmoniker, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Aix-en-Provence Festival.
Dove clearly values working with those he knows and whose musicianship he understands. This is his second work for the Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly, for whom he wrote Three Tennyson Songs (2011). And, judging from this seventeen-song sequence, he has a strong appreciation of Sly’s qualities and strengths: a refined tone, spot-on intonation, superb diction, phrasing of poetic elegance, expressive directness.
What is perhaps ‘missing’ occasionally from Sly’s technical and expressive arsenal is diversity of nuance, shades of timbre, and a sense of personal responsiveness to literary meaning. Sly is a confident and imposing presence on stage; he holds the ear and the eye. But, such self-assurance can be somewhat ‘distancing’. Fortunately, Middleton’s texts provide the necessary variety of tone – moving from the cerebral to the sincere, from the nonchalant to the grave, from the sacred to the theatrical.
Middleton gives us the aphoristic metaphors of ‘Persian Love’: ‘The wine of your mouth has soured./ Now -/ Those kisses,/ Which were my honey,/ Are bitter.’ The Audenesque dryness of ‘Misbegotten Love’: ‘Love misbegotten/ When we first met/ You tied a knot in my heart/ And told me never to forget./ Well -/ haven’t forgotten/ Not yet.’ The comforting nostalgia of pathetic fallacy in ‘Folk Love’: ‘All night alone on the moor I lie/ And bleed from the wound of love/ And the cold dark earth above me/ And the cold bright moon above.’
Dove creates interesting tensions between the voice and string quartet in ‘Poet Love I’, and balances rhetoric with reticence in ‘Sappho Love’. The string drones in ‘Persian Love’ give the voice freedom to explore, seemingly to extemporise. There are some Brittenesque songs: ‘Cold love’, which lies quite low in the baritone range, recalls the cool aloofness of some of Britten’s songs from the 1930s; the percussive string chords of ‘Misbegotten Love’ seemed similarly allusive. The asymmetrical quirkiness of ‘Shrug Love’ reminded me of the playfulness of Britten’s Cabaret Songs; here, Sly’s conversational charm was prevented from slipping into slickness by the occasional rough edge of an emphasised phrase.
The pure beauty of Sly’s baritone was most evident in the soaring exclamations of ‘Greek Love’ – ‘Desire!/ Where are they headed – these happy people boarding the boat?/ Off to Cythera! ‘Deaf Love’, in contrast, highlighted the crystalline gentleness and focused tone of his voice, even when it retreated into the most delicate pianissimo. The baritone has an impressively wide range, both ends of which are centred and alluring. There was not a hint of strain throughout the performance, and the Dante Quartet provided restrained but precise, warmly voiced support. No wonder that Dove and Middleton looked delighted when they accepted the audience’s warm applause.
The Dante Quartet were evidently concerned not to indulge in unrestrained passion or rhapsodic effusiveness in Janáček’s Second String Quartet; the tempi they chose were measured, and it was quite refreshing to experience clarity, translucence, eloquence – some absolutely beguiling phrasing from viola player Yuko Inoue – and spaciousness, rather than impulsive and impetuous fiery feeling. Every gesture was controlled, though no less telling for its restraint; indeed, the precise definition of the repetitive motifs and Krysia Osostowicz’s glassy E-string purity only served to highlight the heated urgency of the rhythmic ostinatos that drive the music forward. The equality of the two violin parts was striking too; Oscar Perks was a strong partner to Osostowicz and was not afraid to present some of the second violin’s motifs with idiosyncratic and well-defined articulation.
Mendelssohn’s A minor Quartet was, likewise, not permitted to recline into saccharine sentimentality. The opening Adagio flowed with full tone and shapely nuance into a furious Allegro. Here, and throughout the Quartet, cellist Richard Jenkinson played with a gentle but focused tone which made its presence felt, providing an innate dramatic underpinning, which fired Perks’ vibrant textural and motivic contributions. The Adagio, too, was decidedly non lento; the Dante created a lovely relaxed mood at the start which served to emphasise the pulsing excitement of the central episode. Osostowicz’s Intermezzo song was graceful and shapely, against finely measured pizzicatos; the airy spiccato, in the upper half of the bow, which characterised the Trio took us into the woods of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; while the sleight of hand that led us back to the reprise of the Intermezzo told all one needed to know about the Dante’s meticulous preparation and collective appreciation of form and expression.
The explosive power and rhetoric of the tremolandos of the Presto made me wish Mendelssohn had written an opera!
This was a fantastic concert. Commitment, passion and excitement were balanced by technical assurance and composure. St. Valentine was redundant.