A satisfying conclusion to the 2020 Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glière, Puccini, J.S. Bach, Mozart: Guy Johnston (cello), Julian Bliss (clarinet), Navarra Quartet (Magnus Johnston & Marije Johnston [violin], Sascha Bota [viola], Brian O’Kane [cello]). Chapel & Marble Hall, Hatfield House, recorded broadcast, 2.10.2020. (CS)

The Navarra Quartet and Julian Bliss, in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House

GlièreEight Duets for Violin and Cello Op.39, No.3 ‘Berceuse’
PucciniI crisantemi
J.S. Bach – Cello Suite No.2 in D minor BWV 1008
Mozart – Clarinet Quintet in A major K.581

The four concerts presented during this year’s Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival have taken us from the House’s Marble Hall to the Long Gallery, from the Armoury to the Archives.  For this, the final concert, we revisited the Marble Hall and ventured into the Chapel.

The recital began with two short works which demonstrate their composers’ mastery of small, intimate forms.  The Festival’s Artistic Director, Guy Johnston, was joined by his brother Magnus to perform one of Reinhold Glière’s ‘Berceuse’, one of the Eight Duets for Violin and Cello Op.39 which he composed in 1909 when he was a teacher at the Gnesin Institute in Moscow.  Though best known now for his monumental ballets, such as The Red Poppy and The Bronze Horseman, in the early days of his career Glière composed much chamber music – string quartets, sextets and an octet, as well as numerous instrumental works, principally for strings and piano.  The Eight Duets are lyrical miniatures, in which Glière’s expressive melodism comes to the fore.  The ‘Berceuse’, a cradle song, was perhaps a slightly odd work with which to start the recital – the tender sweetness of this brief bonbon seems more suited to an ‘encore slot’ – but it was expressively played by the Johnston duo, Guy’s semiquaver arpeggios rising gently to support Magnus’s elegant, wistful theme.

Puccini is similarly more readily associated with impassioned theatre rather than intimate musical dialogues.  Apart from a String Quartet in D Major, which was composed in the early 1880s when Puccini was studying in Milan, his only other chamber work is the brief I crisantemi  – though, as Stephen Johnson remarked in his introductory presentation, the latter suggests that Puccini was actually rather good at crafting chamber-style conversations, and it’s a pity that he didn’t turn his attention to smaller forms more often.  I crisantemi was Puccini’s musical response to the death of his friend Amadeo di Savoia, Duke of Aosta, in 1890; its elegiac melancholy was later repurposed to express the pathos of Manon Lescaut’s tragic demise.  Magnus Johnston and the fellow musicians of the Navarra Quartet captured the lushness of Puccini’s chromatic squirming and contrary-motion counterpoint, without slipping into gushing sentimentality.  This was flexible playing by four responsive chamber musicians; perhaps the inner voices might have been stronger presences in the texture, but the Navarra conveyed the restlessness of the framing sections and the mournful grace of the violin-dominated central episode.

The stained glass window in the Chapel at Hatfield House was made in 1610 by three glass-painters: Richard Butler of Southwark, ‘Lewis Dolphin, a French painter’ and Martin van Bentheim of Emden, Holland.  Its panes present a series of Old Testament scenes, including the Visit of the Angel to Abraham, Jacob’s dream, Jonah and the whale, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath, and Elijah in the fiery chariot.  These scenes provided a perfect backdrop for Guy Johnston’s restrained yet refined performance of the second of Bach’s solo cello suites.  The Prelude had a lovely flowing line, as Johnston eschewed slurs except on the motifs that rise up like waves from the bass, thereby creating a propulsive momentum.  The final chords were beautifully voiced and sustained.  A light fluency characterised the Allemande: there was sufficient crispness of articulation and rhythmic ‘lift’ to remind us that this is a dance but also an essential melodic grace, which was enhanced by the cello’s full and even tone across the registers.  The Courante sprang forward with a wiry, tense energy but I felt that Johnston’s rhythmic freedom – a tendency to extend the foundation bass notes, sometimes following them with the slightest breath, and then to rush through the subsequent semiquavers – disrupted the effortless ‘running’ of the music.  The Sarabande had breadth, enhanced by slow trills, and a plaintive gravity as Johnston exploited the darkness of the cello’s lower strings and the rich texture of the multi-stopped chords.  His penchant for sonority over rhythm in the two Minuets was less satisfying: in the first Minuet the chords which initiate the phrases became rather isolated from those phrases – rather than serving as springboards, integrated within – while in the second, the triple-time impetus was lost at times.  But, the Gigue was expressively shaped, light on its feet, and made for a compelling conclusion.

For the final work we returned to the Marble Hall where the Navarra Quartet were joined by clarinettist Julian Bliss, who had performed with Guy Johnson in the opening concert of the Festival. Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is without doubt one of his finest works and one of the masterpieces of the chamber repertoire.  It’s also a work that one knows well and hears frequently, so the freshness and airy grace of this performance was very satisfying.  The Navarra’s eloquent lyricism and Johnston’s focused sweet tone were beguiling, while the clarity of the strings’ textures ensured that the conversational quality of the music was always evident.  This gave the first movement – especially the development section – a sense of naturalness, spontaneity and immediacy.  The tempo was just right, flowing but with room to breathe; there was time and space at the structural markers and shifts, and an easeful transition into the recapitulation that was comforting and persuasive.

The Navarra provided Bliss with a beautiful cushion for his songlike rhapsody in the Larghetto.  There is no doubting the ‘operatic’ quality of this music – it’s hard not to ‘see’ in one’s mind the lonely Countess, and hear her poignant reflections – and Bliss’s extended phrasing and graceful ornamentation furthered this essential vocalism, as he balanced introspective reflectiveness with the expression of inner passion.  I particularly liked the way that the Navarra musicians made their individual and collective presence felt when this was required and apt.  After the intimacies of the Larghetto, the Minuet had was easeful and sprightly, and in the variations of the Finale the music opened its heart and revealed all its sunny joy.  Bliss sparkled in the animated variations and the slower reflections were judiciously coloured and deepened.  This was lovely music-making: carefree, amiable but always courteous.

Claire Seymour

The concert can be viewed on demand, free of charge on the Festival website.

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