United Kingdom Haydn, Gordon Crosse, Gavin Higgins, Schubert: David Cohen (cello), Carducci String Quartet (Matthew Denton & Michelle Fleming [violin], Eoin Schmidt-Martin [viola], Emma Denton [cello]), St John’s Smith Square, London, 5.5.2017 (CS)
Haydn – String Quartet in D major Op.20 No.4
Gordon Crosse – Little Bu Sonata for Cello Alone (London premiere)
Gavin Higgins – Fourth movement from Gursky Landscape (London premiere)
Schubert – String Quintet in C major D956
The audience for this St John’s Smith Square recital was disappointingly sparse, which was surprising given that one of classical music’s ‘Desert Island’ perennials appeared on the programme. But, perhaps the convergence of a Friday evening with two newly commissioned works receiving their London premieres was to blame for the low attendance; whatever, those present enjoyed and appreciated a varied programme, even though the performance – uncharacteristically for the Carducci Quartet – was sometimes lacking in vigour and vim.
The Belgian-born cellist David Cohen has been responsible for the two new commissions, which were both first heard in Norwich earlier this year. Lancashire-born, Suffolk-residing Gordon Crosse, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, has written a Bach-inspired sonata, Little Bu, for solo cello. He is an experienced composer for this instrument; his Ceremony for cello and orchestra was heard at the BBC Proms in 1966 and a Cello Concerto was published in 1979.
Crosse himself explains the origins of the work: ‘Little Bu is the name of the house near Orphir in Mainland Orkney where I wrote this piece in April 2015 […] just before starting it I saw the controversial TV film about Anna Magdalena Bach and her supposed contribution to J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites. I was unconvinced, but very moved by the fate of Anna and other women of that time – her name is incorporated along with the BACH motif in the opening prelude.’ The four movements – Prelude, Completely Diatonic Air with variations, Lament and Jig – reveal Crosse’s sensitivity to harmonic and timbral spaciousness, and embrace both gentle lyricism and more explosive mordancy.
Throughout, Cohen’s tone was clear and clean, and there was a precision to the articulation that was decidedly and convincingly ‘baroque’. The Prelude was dynamic while the Lament had expressive weight; even in the most veiled episodes the ear was drawn by the intricate writing as the sound retreated. Crosse ‘apologises’ for making a ‘serious attempt to injure the cellist or his instrument with extreme speed and range’ in the Jig, but Cohen did not seem unduly perturbed by the spectacular pizzicato outbursts or the acrobatics.
The Carducci Quartet joined Cohen for the second of the evening’s new works, Gavin Higgins’ Movement IV from Gursky Landscape for solo cello and string quartet – the final movement of a larger work which is to be premiered at the Cheltenham Festival in 2018. Higgin’s composition is a musical response to the photography of Andreas Gursky (b.1955), a German photographer and professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany, best-known for his large-format architecture and landscape colour photographs. He employs traditional and manipulative techniques and became renowned, in 2011, as the photographer of Rhein II which at £2.7 million was the most expensive photograph ever sold.
The panoramic expanse which, as Cohen suggests, ‘illuminates something about man’s role in the world’, is suggested by the opening of Higgins’ movement, which is inspired by Gursky’s image of Chartres Cathedral. So high and quiet as to be barely audible, the initial string intimation gradually descends and warms, evoking first the enormous height of the cathedral whose stained glass windows dwarf the human figures below, and then the infusion of colour as light is thrown across the miniscule figures. The players created a rich, ambient sound-world as Higgins’ music, which gives an impression of strong tonal centres, swelled with vibrant hues and comforting textures, then slipped into darker, cooler shadows. After the stratospheric opening, there was a prevailing sense of descent, and as Cohen’s detuned cello sank into the dark gloom of the lowest depths, one couldn’t help but think that the instrument that Higgins really wanted to write this movement for was a double bass.
The concert opened in a sunnier spirit, with Haydn’s Op.20 No.4 in D major, a quartet which I heard the Carducci play at the Wigmore Hall just a couple of weeks ago. On this occasion, I found the Quartet’s playing to be more stylish and polished. In the Allegro di molto the tuning was well-centred, the textures light and airy, and the four voices blended comfortably, with the virtuosity demanded of the first violin more satisfyingly integrated within the overall sound. The minor-key variations of the second movement conjured the emotional depth which Adagio affettuoso implies, and as the Carducci danced cleanly through the rhythmic displacements of the Allegretto alla zingarese I became aware of what a strong role cellist Emma Denton plays in the coherence achieved, the focused, expressive bass part holding the dynamic exchanges to a sure anchor and also defining the movement’s architecture. The Presto scherzando (the only time that Haydn used this marking) was genuinely good-natured and impish, Denton’s skipping triplets wryly contrasting with the whole quartet’s rhetorical octaves. The overall effect was one of playful drama achieved, as it should be, without too much effort.
Settling down to listen to Schubert’s posthumous String Quintet, one of the great chamber music masterworks, one can almost feel the endorphins rushing before a note is played, in anticipation of the beauty and anguish which is to come – Schubert’s expression of humanity which it is impossible to describe in words. And, the Carducci Quartet and David Cohen gave, as one would expect from five fine instrumentalists, a performance which was cultured, expressive and accomplished. But, at the close I felt that my appetite had not been fully sated.
Tempi were fairly brisk and vibrato was judiciously employed; the playing was sonorous and detailed, the ensemble and technique unwaveringly secure. But, I longed for a little more audacity at times, and for more contrast between the sparkle and the sublimity, between the moments of peace and those which one critic has described as ‘bottomless pathos’.
Matthew Denton, unusually, seemed rather subdued, when what was needed, particularly in the imposing Allegro ma non troppo and in the sforzando tutti chords of the Finale, was greater muscularity and weight, and more shine to the sound. The Adagio was tender – reflective but not languorous – and here the simplicity of Denton’s initial fragments of melody was effective; it was as if the theme was being coaxed forth by the encouraging accompaniment below. As the movement progressed, I would have liked a greater sense of drama and emphasis at the cadential turning-points, building towards the climactic central section; it’s a long movement and one of the main challenges is to sustain both tension and transparency and to achieve a due proportion between the sections.
I always feel that one’s heart should feel so wrung by the close of the Adagio that the fortissimo vigour of the Scherzo is almost shocking in its life-confirming buoyancy – a sort of musical defibrillator. But, the Carducci and Cohen didn’t capture Schubert’s emotional extremities at either end of the scale. Perhaps I am wrong to grumble, when the playing was so assured and refined, for there was a straightforwardness about the musicians’ interpretation which did let the music speak for itself, and on a different occasion, in a different context, the sense of being taken on an emotional journey might have been more strongly communicated.