United Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Britten, R. Strauss, Mendelssohn: Allan Clayton (tenor), Lawrence Power (viola), Andrei Ioniță (cello), Elias String Quartet, Christian Ihle Hadland (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 1.2.2020. (CS)
Vaughan Williams – On Wenlock Edge
Britten – String Quartet No.3 Op.94
R. Strauss – Capriccio Op.85, Sextet
Mendelssohn – String Quintet No.2 in B flat Op.87.
The BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme helps talented young musicians develop their careers, not least by enabling them to reach a wider audience through BBC Radio 3 broadcasts. This concert was the finale of a day of performances at Wigmore Hall by current NGAs and distinguished alumni, marking the 20th anniversary of the NGA scheme.
The concert opened with Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge, the work on the programme that had caught my eye when browsing through Wigmore Hall’s season programme. We don’t hear Vaughan Williams’ setting of Housman’s poems often enough: perhaps it’s because of the uncommon forces required, perhaps the challenge of marrying impressionist string textures with a lyric vocal idiom that springs from undeniably English roots. Whatever, the opportunity to hear tenor Allan Clayton (NGA 2007-09), pianist Christian Ihle Hadland (NGA 2011-13) and the Elias Quartet (NGA 2009-11) explore Housman’s poignant terrain was one not to be foregone. And, in many ways the promise was fulfilled.
Having performed this work myself on several occasions, in much more humble contexts, I have no illusions about the expressive challenges of On Wenlock Edge. How to balance vividness and an occasional razor edge of tension with wistful quietude? How to elucidate the dense motivic detail and to ensure that, however sparsely employed the string forces, a sense of poise is struck between piano, strings and voice? How to cohere the varied poetic sentiments? These questions were more than answered by the performers at Wigmore Hall.
The clarity and delicacy achieved by Hadland was remarkable in the light of the technical and expressive demands. The piano introduction to ‘From far, from even and morning’ had a dry fragility, creating a sense of ‘distance’; in ‘Bredon Hill’, the piano dramatically conveyed the poem’s theme of lost love, through the symbolic sounds of the church bells, which rang brightly to call the poet-speaker’s lover “In valleys miles away”, but which, with the coming of the Christmas snow, assumed an increasingly ominous tint, the pianist’s two hands diverging as if to express the gulf of grief.
The string playing was no less poetically immersing. When the Elias Quartet were founded in 1998, the ensemble was named after its then leader, Magnus Johnson, to satisfy the preferred protocol of the Royal Northern College of Music’s administration. In the absence of Sara Bitlloch, who has occupied the leader’s chair since 2003, Johnson returned to play with his former colleagues.
There was so much to admire and be dramatically swept up within. First, the swirls of the wind, all trills and whirling flutters, at the start of ‘On Wenlock Edge’ and the mysterious density of the postlude of that song that evokes the poetic imagery placing the present within a historical, even mythic, expanse. Then the bright openness of the tone in ‘From far, from eve and morning’ juxtaposed with the pianissimo upper strings at the start of the succeeding ‘Is my team ploughing?’, which seemed to carry whispers from the past and other worlds in its fragile embrace. Cellist Marie Bitlloch provided a consoling and uniting foundation for the surging strings at the start of ‘Bredon Hill’ with the piano’s countering stillness. The final song, ‘Clun’, flowed with naturalness, the sound brighter, more at ease, the harmonic warmth of the final episode seeming to welcome and bring to rest the preceding falling motif from the viola and the strings’ rocking gestures.
Allan Clayton sang with characteristic beauty of tone, expressive nuance and clarity of diction. I feel almost reluctant to suggest that I found his performance, though never less than technically consummate and thoughtfully attentive to detail, at times overly ‘operatic’. Clayton seemed keen to escalate every intensity and urgency to heights of impassioned drama and anger, whereas Housman’s cynicism seems to me more simmering than raging and balanced by a ‘modern’ pastoralism, faux or otherwise (Housman’s Shropshire is not ‘real’ place), which dramatizes man’s fate as tragic within an impassive universe: elegiac rather than existential. At times there was an urgent pressing forwards: “The blood that warms an English yeoman,/ The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.” (‘On Wenlock Edge’). Elsewhere, a raging against the dying light à la Dylan Thomas. The voices of ‘Is my team ploughing?’, which converse across a liminal space, set in opposition a haunting, barely-there fragility and a forthright bluntness bordering on cruelty, before the former let rip with accusatory anger only to be met with the latter’s rhetoric repetitions from which there could be no vocal retreat into poetic pathos. Only in ‘Clun’ did Clayton let his voice relax and resist over-colouring a text which has its own innate scents, allowing his poet-speaker to ease into a melancholy madness.
The original programme was designed to balance 20th-century English compositions with, in the second half, works by Mozart and Mendelssohn. But, the indisposition of clarinettist Martin Fröst (NGA 2003-05) necessitated a change of programme and Mozart’s Clarinet Trio in E flat K498 (Kegelstatt) was replaced by the String Sextet that opens Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, with viola player Lawrence Power (NGA 2001-03) and cellist Andrei Ioniță (NGA 2016-18) joining the Elias Quartet. Well, there can be few ears and hearts that can resist Strauss’s ravishing stylistic fingerprints: the emotive gestures were lovingly played here, and the shifts between relaxed self-assurance and tense urgency were skilfully shaped. Marie Bitlloch contributed greatly to the unity of the six voices.
However beautifully the Strauss Sextet was played, though, Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No.2 in Bb Op.87 had a greater sense of collective purpose. Mendelssohn’s two Quintets had passed me by until fairly recently, but I’ve come to admire their inventiveness, conversational dexterity and sheer ‘grab life by the scruff of the neck’ vivacity. Here, the development section of the opening Allegro vivace was particularly well shaped, with an exciting sense of musical ideas evolving and pushing against each other. The Andante scherzando was decorous and genteel, though the ‘playfulness’ of the triple-time dance was intimated. The tempo was ‘just right’; easefully beguiling. Vibrato-less darkness characterised the opening of the Adagio e lento, and the sometimes unexpected harmonic twists were spotlessly tuned. The gradual release of energy in this movement was impressive, and the tremolo gestures took us back to the first movement’s tensions. At the close, Marie Bitlloch’s solo was one of the finest moments of the entire evening, and when she was joined by Johnson, above a tremolando bed of sound, the effect was blissful. The finale romped home combining fiery fervour and fugal seriousness.
It was, however, the Elias Quartet’s performance of Britten’s Third String Quartet which was for me the musical peak of this recital. In fact, I think this was one of the best live performances of this work that I have heard. From the first entwining utterances of the second violin and viola at the start of Duets, I was struck by the cleanness of the sound and, despite the innate strength of the tone, the intimacy of the conversation. Both elements were sustained throughout the movement’s ensuing dialogues and, indeed, throughout the whole work. As the other voices complemented the initial ‘duologue’, flutters and pizzicatos built towards assertive chordal pronouncements, and the ebb-and-flow of intensity was persuasively crafted. Ostinato seemed more ‘folky’ than is sometimes the case: there was a compelling rhythmic impetus but also a sense of freedom and ‘song’. And, while there was strong definition of the individual lines, there was never any weakening of the four-voice ‘whole’.
Marie Bitlloch’s pianissimo entry and accompaniment – stillness, no vibrato, the bow barely seeming to move at all – to Johnson’s skylark-imitating Solo was magical – Shelley would surely here have found the ‘crystal stream’ inspiring ‘harmonious madness’. As, first, the viola, and then the second violin assumed the responsibility of supporting the Romantic sublime, so the tone was warmed through, though the dynamic remained hushed in reverence. Burlesque was gritty and grainy, scampering playfully but determinedly. In the concluding Recitative and Passacaglia, although the subtitle – La Serenissima – points to the movement’s relationship to Death in Venice, composed shortly before the Third Quartet, it was in fact echoes and images from Peter Grimes that more forcefully took hold in my mind and heart. The incessant stepwise tread seemed like the unstoppable tidal tug, back and forth, and Simone van der Giessen’s solo theme, poignant but not sentimental, took me back to the viola’s haunting lyricism in the Passacaglia in the opera, in which we may hear the voice of Grimes’ drowned apprentice.
This concert was supported by the Cavatina Chamber Trust and it was good to see Wigmore Hall populated by a good proportion of under 25-year-olds who made their appreciation known in more rumbustious fashion than that to which the Hall is accustomed! But, fittingly so, at the end of a concert celebrating the new generations who will provide our musical pleasures to come, and those who will enjoy them.