Virtuosity and vivacity from Guy Johnston and Melvyn Tan at Hatfield House

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn: Guy Johnston (cello), Julian Bliss (clarinet), Melvyn Tan (piano), Marble Hall, Hatfield House, live stream, 11.9.2020. (CS)

Melvyn Tan (piano) and Guy Johnston (cello) perform in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House

Beethoven – Trio in Bb major Op.11 for clarinet, cello and piano (slow movement)
Schubert – Impromptu in Eb major Op.90 No.2
Mendelssohn – Cello Sonata No.2 in D Major Op.58

Hatfield House, a Jacobean country house set in a large Great Park in Hertfordshire, was built in 1611 by the first Earl of Salisbury and son of William Lord Burghley, Robert Cecil, who was Chief Minister to both Elizabeth I and her successor, James I.  As well as being the most powerful man in England, Cecil was also a generous patron of the arts, particularly architecture and music, and the Hatfield House archive attests to the many Tudor and Elizabethan musicians who benefitted from his munificence: Nicolas Lanier, the first Master of the King’s Music, is known to have been in Cecil’s employ, while Thomas Morley, William Byrd and John Dowland were among those who dedicated pieces to him.

The house is also the home of the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, now in its ninth year.  Artist director Guy Johnston curated four concerts which were filmed in the house’s historic rooms in July before a small private audience, and which are now being made available as free live streams on successive Friday evenings between 11th September and 2nd October on the Festival’s YouTube channel, with forewords by Lord Salisbury.  The first concert took us into the Marble Hall with its impressive chequerboard floor, wood panelling and oak carvings, where Johnston was joined by pianist Melvyn Tan and, in the opening work, clarinettist Julian Bliss.

Before the performance, musicologist Stephen Johnson discussed the development of the piano and the clarinet in the late eighteenth century and the new capabilities that the instruments offered composers, and also drew attention to the way that the chamber music composed at this time was increasingly becoming a conversation between equal, intertwining voices.  The slow movement from Beethoven’s Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, an early work composed in 1797, would surely not convince anyone that Beethoven exploited the clarinet’s range and colours in the way that Mozart responded to the instrument’s diversity of character, but it did provide an opportunity to enjoy Guy Johnston’s relaxed lyrical and expressive phrasing, sensitively echoed by Julian Bliss, and Melvyn Tan’s confident, clear-sighted appreciation of the young Beethoven’s handling of the piano which, of the three instruments, has the most varied material and development, particularly during the darker shadows of the central section.

Given that the movement lasts barely five minutes, I’m not sure why the whole Trio was not performed, since the musical programme would still not have exceeded an hour in length.  To my ear, the outer movements have material of more interest and invention, particularly the Finale which presents nine variations on ‘Pria chio l’impegno’ (Before I go to work), a tune from Joseph Weigl’s dramma giocoso L’amor marinaro ossia Il corasro which was staged at the Wiener Hoftheater in 1797 and which was so popular that it was whistled in the Viennese streets (Gassen) for weeks, earning the Trio itself the nickname, ‘the Gassenhauer Trio’.  Instead, another short work followed: Schubert’s Impromptu Op.90 No.2.  Tan’s liquid stream of triplet peaks and wriggles was firmly and brightly articulated, and the waltzing left hand had a lovely elasticity enabling almost imperceptive rubatos and accelerations to shape the scales racing above with nuance.  The tempo was rather breakneck though, and in the more marked central episode, while the theme penetrated clearly and decisively, the inner motifs – particularly the middle voice triplet – sometimes suffered from a lack of distinctness.

The substantial work in the programme was Mendelssohn’s Second Cello Sonata.  It was preceded by a discussion between Lord Salisbury and curator and art historian Dr Emily Burns about the architectural features of the Marble Hall, and the iconographic meaning and significance of the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I which hangs in the Hall, thereby inviting us to consider the music that we were hearing in the context of the house, its contents and its history.

Given that he created some of the masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire, it’s somewhat surprising that the sonata does not seem to have been a form which inspired Mendelssohn to the greatest heights.  But, if the sonatas for piano and for violin are seldom heard, the two cello sonatas are perennially popular, and the soaring opening of the high-spirited Allegro assai vivace made it immediately clear why: surely only Mendelssohn could write such a natural, easeful melody which seems to have sprung forth ready-made, as it were.  Johnston and Tan enjoyed their joyfully animated interchanges and wore their virtuosity lightly.  Johnston gave equal care and attention to the cello’s large expressive outpourings, small textural motifs and accompanying commentary, Tan’s festive fountains of notes sparkled, and the performer’s exploited the Romantic lyricism without making the music’s dramas hyperbolic.

Both the piano’s perky staccato grace notes and the cello’s pizzicato pranced with an impish air in the Allegretto scherzando but relaxed comfortingly into the cello’s expansive and open-hearted lyrical theme.  There was more scintillating passage-work and jubilant melodising from both musicians in the Molto Allegro e vivace, but it is the chorale-like Adagio which is the expressive heart of this work, a heart which Tan wore on his sleeve in the imposing and beautifully shaped arpeggiated chords which state the chorale theme at the start.  Johnston married a concentrated tonal focus with freedom of phrasing, creating a flowing rhapsodic intensity, while Tan’s rippling accompanied further enhanced the dramatic stature of the movement.

‘Such is your divine Disposation that both you excellently understand, and royally entertaine the Exercise of Musicke.’  If the words which John Dowland inscribed in the dedication to Robert Cecil at the start of his Andreas Ornithoparcus his Micrologus – a translation of Andreas (Ornithoparcus) Vogelsang’s Musicae active micrologus (1515) – were accurate, then we can imagine that Cecil would have been delighted to know that more than 400 years after his own death, music is still resounding through his Marble Hall.  And, next Friday (18th September) Dowland himself returns to Hatfield House, when Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny perform lute songs and galliards by the composer, in the Long Gallery and Armoury.

Claire Seymour

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