United Kingdom Glazunov, Suk, Mozart, Elgar: Fitzwilliam String Quartet (Lucy Russell & Marcus Barcham Stevens [violins], Alan George [viola], Sally Pendlebury [cello]), Anna Tilbrook (piano). Courtenay Centre, Newton Abbot, 20.1.2019. (PRB)
Glazunov – Noveletten 1 and 3, from Five Noveletten Op.15
Suk – Meditation on the St Wenceslas Chorale Op.35a
Mozart – Piano Concerto No.12 in A major K414
Elgar – Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84
One of the most endearing features of local music-making is the burgeoning number of music societies, which have grown up over the years in smaller towns and conurbations around the land. While their more highly-populated neighbours seemingly struggle to put on just a couple of events every year, these societies can mount impressive annual concert series that bring top national and international players to the area. Of course, it reflects the difference in community spirit between smaller towns and large, impersonal cities. Irrespective, however, of where such societies are to be found, what matters is the vital army of willing supporters, and the financial backing from local businesses, benefactors, and, in some cases, from the local council.
NADSA, based in the Devon market town of Newton Abbot, is a perfect example of the music-society scene. It has actually been in existence since 1946, under its full title of ‘Newton Abbot and District Society of Arts’. Since that time, its aims and objectives have not changed significantly, except that it now focuses all its efforts on bringing world-class classical musicians to the local area, those who would simply not be heard without NADSA’s concerts’ initiative. And when you consider that, just some eight miles down the road, the smaller town of Totnes runs its equally successful Early Music Society series, it certainly says something special about the fecundity – from the standpoint of classical music – not only of the red Devonian soil in the area, but also of those who live there.
NADSA presents most of its annual chamber-music series in the town’s Courtenay Centre, an ideal venue for the genre. Recitals either take place in the evening or on a Sunday afternoon. It was interesting to hear one of the Fitzwilliam players saying how much he personally enjoyed a Sunday-afternoon, rather than an evening one, and clearly this had had no detrimental effect whatsoever on the packed audience.
But even before the first note had been played, a cheque presentation was made to NADSA on behalf of the Town Council by Town Mayor Ken Purchase, who, interestingly, lists campanology among his hobbies. It is very refreshing that many relatively small councils still are not afraid to offer some financial support to Chamber Music, so often denigrated elsewhere as elitist. Even the room had been sensitively set up to create just the right ambiance for music of more intimate dimensions, with an attractive floral display and welcoming use of lighting.
Without further ado, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet opened their programme with two Novelettes from Glazunov’s full set of five. The first, in the Spanish style, though somewhat seen through Russian eyes, conveys the sound of strumming guitars in the cello part of the outer sections, while presenting a more languid sense in the contrasting middle section. The third, entitled ‘Interlude in Olden Style’ is, by comparison, a set of variations on a plaintive but dignified theme, and is usually felt to be the finest in the set. The Fitzwilliams’ first-rate performance caught every nuance of the writing, and it became clear very quickly why they adopt the seating formation where cello and viola have changed places. Veteran of the string-quartet fraternity, violist Alan George, has a wonderfully, full-bodied rich tone which adds so much to the linear content of the quartet’s sound, by virtually being able to match, almost single-handedly, the two violins. This then leaves the cello to project directly forward, which maintains the balance, and maintains clearly-defined sound vector-lines to perfection.
I always think it right and proper in today’s concert-giving situations, that it is certainly not taboo for the players to introduce their programme, or share some little anecdote along the way. Once more, the violist shared an interesting and very personal reminiscence about the next work, Suk’s eminently moving Meditation on the St Wenceslas Chorale, originally written for string quartet in 1914 to strengthen the hope of the Czech people for their freedom. After his death (1935), his orchestrated transcription then became their rallying cry during World War II. Acknowledging the quality of the in-house programme-notes, Alan George did not fall into the often annoying trap of repeating them, lock, stock and barrel. Needless to say, this was a truly sympathetic reading that really tugged at the heartstrings.
Programming skills are also very important nowadays, to ensure that, while not overworked, today’s artists have to expect that it does not always make good financial sense simply to swan in for one item on the day. They need to be available elsewhere in the programme if an appropriate situation arises.
Clearly the highlight the whole programme would be Elgar’s magnificent Piano Quintet, and this would take care of the second half on its own. You have already got Anna Tilbrook, superb UK pianist, accompanist and chamber musician, ready and waiting to join the Fitzwilliams for this, but finding another suitable Piano Quintet to complete the first half would be a decidedly tall order. For the pianist, the ensuing Elgar Quintet is more than an evening’s work on its own, and similar quintets will still be largely four-movement offerings. Enter Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, not only to save the day, but also to provide the perfect Vorspeise for the Elgar to follow. Mozart himself was particularly pleased with his three early Vienna concertos (Nos. 11-13), saying, ‘They are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid.’ No.12 in A major is a particularly fine work, and its original light orchestration lends itself well to a cut-down version for piano and string quartet, or a quattro, as it was then called.
There was such an amazing transparency of texture throughout, and never did it appear that a line was missing, since the composer skilfully incorporated all the wind parts in the string parts. Tilbrook was a commanding soloist for the work. She played with great dexterity, and finely-shaped passage-work in the outer Allegro and Allegretto respectively, while delivering the often vocal lines in the middle Andante with great sensitivity and cantabile touch. From the virtuosity of the cadenzas to the intimacy of the slow movement, Tilbrook in fact provided a truly empathetic soloist, to whom the Fitzwilliams responded with equal sensitivity. Despite the demands of the Elgar to come, there was never a sense of keeping something in reserve. It was simply an ideal piece to incorporate at that particular moment, and a real bonus for the audience, who would rarely expect to hear a Piano Concerto and a Piano Quintet both on the same programme.
Despite having only three movements, Elgar’s Piano Quintet is still the longest of his chamber works, and is really conceived on an orchestral canvas, both for the pianist and supporting strings. At the time, the composer was in a dark psychological state. He wrote it mostly in ‘Brinkwells’, a country cottage in Sussex Elgar and wife Alice had rented, but there was a macabre association nearby – a cluster of trees in a park where, legend has it, these are actually the remains of Spanish monks struck dead by lightning for engaging in sacrilegious rituals. Whatever the story, and there is no evidence at all to confirm it, the Quintet’s first movement does conjure up some of Elgar’s most ‘ghostly’ music. The second movement is the Quintet’s emotional heart, while the Finale, after a late reprise of the slow, opening melody, and a final battle between strings and piano, sees sunnier music winning the day, as the work ends with a blaze of A major.
The players’ performance here was second to none, and it was abundantly clear that, at the end, they were physically and emotionally drained – the audience too, of course, though not perhaps physically. Superb, unfaltering technique from the piano was finely complemented throughout by the strings’ contribution, and when power was needed from either party, it was always there in abundance, though equally could always be matched by the most delicate of pianissimo when required.
A good number of the audience had never heard Elgar’s glorious Piano Quintet before, and were now totally in awe of the piece, and the outstanding performance it received here. It is perhaps ironic that, in the slow movement, while the musical language is still unequivocally Elgarian, his German contemporary, Brahms, is never far away, stylistically-speaking. Had the Quintet perhaps been written by the German master, it would, without doubt, be far better known here in its own country. At a time, historically, when a certain degree of patriotism would not go astray, perhaps it is about time that we acknowledge this not only in the overtly British Empire style of Elgar’s Nimrod, or Pomp and Circumstance Marches, but also in such uniquely English outpouring as the Piano Quintet, or in some of his other unjustly neglected works.
A final word goes to the piano itself – NADSA’s own Yamaha 7’ Concert Grand, which took a terrific pounding in the nicest sense, of course, yet barely even flinched.
This was altogether a superb concert that we did not even have to drive half-way across the country to enjoy, brought to us instead by NASDA, and its band of willing, loyal, and local supporters.
Philip R Buttall