The 2019 Summer Festival of Chamber Music at Paxton House Draws to a Close

30/07/2019

‘Music at Paxton’ – Summer Festival of Chamber Music 2019: Picture Gallery, Paxton House, Paxton, Berwickshire, Scottish Borders (MC)

‘Music at Paxton’ the Summer Festival of Chamber Music located at Paxton House, Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders is only five miles from Berwick-on-Tweed town centre. Having attended ‘Music at Paxton’ last year once again I arrived for the final three days of this ten-day event. Several audience members enthused about the performances of both Paul Lewis and Tasmin Little who had appeared at separate concerts a few days earlier at the festival.

26 July

J.S. Bach, Britten, Nadia Boulanger, Brahms: Laura van der Heijden (cello), Tom Poster (piano).

J.S. Bach – Viola da gamba Sonata No.1 in G major, BWV 1027
Britten – Cello Sonata in C major, Op.65
Nadia Boulanger – Three Pieces for cello and piano
Brahms – Cello Sonata No.1 in E minor, Op.38

Held in the attractive setting of the Picture Gallery the audience was royally treated to the playing of Laura van der Heijden using a seventeenth-century cello by Francesco Rugeri of Cremona and pianist Tom Poster playing the house Steinway model D (2001). The programme commenced with J.S. Bach’s Viola da gamba Sonata No.1 a work originally ascribed to the 1720s but now thought to be later. Intended for viola da gamba and harpsichord the work sounded quite splendid on the modern strung cello and piano and I was struck by the amount of style and grace Van der Heijden and Poster lavished on the sonata. The near-hypnotic effect of the soulful Andante movement was especially enjoyable.

Jumping forward some two hundred and twenty or so years we heard Britten’s Cello Sonata from 1961 written for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich. A stark contrast to the J.S. Bach, Van der Heijden and Poster revelled in the spikier rhythms and often austere soundworld of Britten’s score and I must single out the third movement Elegia (Lento) for the aching sense of reflection the players perceptively created.

After the interval came a work by Nadia Boulanger. Although renowned as an influential teacher, with a dazzling roster of students including Copland and Bernstein, I don’t encounter her music too often and it was good to make acquaintance with her Three Pieces for cello and piano. Originally composed for organ around 1914 these beautifully crafted miniatures certainly leave the listener wanting to hear more. Titled ‘Vite et nerveusement rythmé’ the final piece, quite superbly balanced for the two instruments, felt confident and assertively played providing an uplifting buoyancy.

The final work of the evening Brahms’s Cello Sonata No.1 completed in 1865 is an undoubted masterwork of which I never tire. Compared to many works of this era the piano does not take a subservient role sharing a more equal status with the cello. Van der Heijden and Poster’s robustly confident approach suited the often-weighty writing and I relished the performance which was uniformly steadfast. Notable was the opening movement Allegro non troppo where the low, rich register of the cello was exploited so successfully. With such brooding introspection, the duo generated passages displaying a dazzling level of substantial intensity. For an encore to this engaging recital Van der Heijden and Poster chose Rachmaninoff’s popular ‘Vocalise’ which was quite splendidly played but in truth I would have preferred something less well-known.

27 July

Mozart, Brahms: Leonore Piano Trio.

Mozart – Piano Trio in B flat major, K502
Brahms – Piano Trio No.1 in B major, Op.8 (revised version)

The Leonore Piano Trio comprising of Benjamin Nabarro (violin), Gemma Rosefield (cello) and Tim Horton (piano) chose to open this recital with Mozart’s Piano Trio, K502. The year of composition 1786 marked a successful period for Mozart with the completion of his opera Le nozze di Figaro. It has been a while since I heard the B flat major Trio and it was good to be reacquainted with this fine work. In this lighter weighted score Horton’s piano part was prominent with the tone of the house Steinway eminently suited to the Gallery’s warm and close atmosphere. Successful too was Rosefield’s cello, an Alessandro Gagliano (Naples 1704) evidently a gift from the King of Spain to King George IV, producing a quite stunning, rich and rounded tone. Faring less well in the clammy acoustic was the tone of Nabarro’s violin. In this beautiful work my highlight was the decidedly lyrical central movement Larghetto with playing from the Leonore achieving a ravishing beauty.

Next we heard Brahms’s Piano Trio No.1 which was written originally in 1854, when the composer had newly enjoyed the friendship of both Robert and Clara Schumann and given substantial revision in 1889. Immediately one noticed Brahms’s rich, weighty textures providing such a stark contrast to the Mozart trio. Nabarro’s instrument was noticeably better suited tonally to Brahms’s heavier Romantic writing. Striking was the lengthy opening movement so squally and invigorating with the Leonore matching Brahms’s passionate intent note for note. I was also drawn to the windswept Finale- Allegro played with tremendous energy and generating a white-hot passion.

27 July

Schubert: Members of Leonore Piano Trio and Maxwell String Quartet.

Schubert – String Quintet in C major, D.956

Later the same evening two members of the Leonore Piano Trio, Nabarro and Rosefield combined with Maxwell String Quartet members Colin Scobie (violin), Elliott Perks (viola) and Duncan Strachan (cello) for Schubert’s String Quintet, unquestionably one of the pillars of chamber music. Schubert completed the Quintet in 1828 just two months before his untimely death aged only 31. The players revelled in this stunning music, totally committed and so well prepared too. Substantial at over twenty minutes, the opening movement Allegro ma non troppo so richly powerful and achingly tender by turns saw the players in total accord with the composer’s soundworld. So unified as a team, the glorious playing of the famous Adagio movement made the hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Throughout the players communicated a special frisson and did full justice to this masterwork. In my view this was chamber music making at its finest.

28 July

Haydn, Beethoven: Leonore Piano Trio.

Haydn – Piano Trio (No.37) in D minor, Hob. XV:23
Beethoven – Piano Trio in B flat major, Op.97 ‘Archduke’

After its thrilling previous performances, the Leonore Piano Trio returned to the Gallery stage at midday for a successful two work recital. Out of Haydn’s over forty piano trios only a handful are typically heard with No.39 the ‘Gypsy Rondo’ being the most popular. Here the Leonore chose the Piano Trio (No.37) in D minor from 1795, a product of Haydn’s early sixties and bearing a dedication to Princess Marie Esterházy. In a compelling performance from this totally cohesive unit, striking was the balance achieved between the piano and strings. Hard to beat for the ebullience of the playing was the opening Andante molto with the Leonore communicating such infectious good humour.

Next from the Leonore another chamber music key work, Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B flat major known as the ‘Archduke’ owing to its dedication to Archduke Rudolph of Austria the youngest child of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor. In this lengthy score usually taking around forty minutes to perform the Leonore displayed all the inordinate levels of energy and concentration required to deliver a performance of lyrical beauty together with the nobility which is so essential.

James MacMillan, Shostakovich, Schubert: Maxwell Quartet.

James MacMillan – ‘Memento’, movement for string quartet
Shostakovich – String Quartet No.9 in E flat major, Op.117
Schubert – String Quartet No.14 in D minor, D.801 ‘Death and the Maiden’

For this mid-afternoon recital it was good to see the Maxwell Quartet back to its full complement after the stunning performance the previous evening with Benjamin Nabarro and Gemma Rosefield of the Schubert Quintet. Colin Scobie (violin), George Smith (violin), Elliott Perks (viola) and Duncan Strachan (cello) all looked delighted to take to the stage.

For its opening work it was no surprise for the Maxwell to look to their Scottish roots choosing ‘Memento’ by renowned composer James MacMillan who hails from North Ayrshire. Completed in 1994 and introduced in New York City this lean work, permeated by clearly audible Gaelic influences was given a haunting performance and at just over four minutes it seemed finished far too soon.

If one hears a performance of a Shostakovich string quartet it is likely to be the famous No.8 from 1960.  Duly, it was so pleasing to hear the Maxwell play No.9 that Shostakovich completed some four years later and dedicated to his young third wife Irina Antonovna. With a performance that was gripping in its engagement the Maxwell drew me in to Shostakovich’s often unsettling soundworld of inner turmoil yet containing suggestions of a growing optimism. Notably in the third movement marked Allegretto I relished hearing the veiled rather than overt references to the Gallop from Rossini’s ‘William Tell’ overture. Double the length of any of the other movements best of all was the Finale – a varied and distinct pièce de résistance – played with intensity and great resolve, concluding with high drama.

To complete the recital was Schubert’s famous ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet, another indispensable and celebrated work of the repertoire. Composed in 1824 when the quartet was introduced privately in 1826 at Vienna it was Schubert playing the viola. Given his grave health problems not surprisingly the theme of death is at the core of the score while the title ‘Death and the Maiden’ is taken from Schubert’s early song setting ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ D.531 to a text by Matthias Claudius. Such a powerful work, full of melodic invention, Schubert’s required changes of mood and often unexpected changes of dynamics held no fear for the Maxwell. Mightily impressive was the vibrantly characterised playing of the theme and six variations in the second movement Andante con moto. Another highlight was the Finale – Presto a Tarantella in relentless 6/8 which has been described as a ‘dance of death.’ With a breathless urgency and verve, the Maxwell played with unwavering concentration and there was never any sense of loss of control. Throughout the recital the instruments of the Maxwell Quartet emitted an agreeable tone which combined with such satisfying intonation. My time at the Paxton – Summer Festival of Chamber Music could hardly have ended on a finer note.

Michael Cookson

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