Old and new music at Levinsky Hall in Plymouth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various: Trio Kurtag (Juliette Roos [violin], Yume Fujise [viola], Eliza Millett [cello]), David Bessell. Levinsky Hall, University of Plymouth, 11.3.2023. (PRB)

Trio Kurtag © Philip R Buttall

Purcell – Fantasia No. 1 Z.732, Fantasia No. 3 Z.734 (1680)
Gideon Klein – String Trio (1944)
David BessellMicro Variations on an Emerging Theme (2023)
Françaix – String Trio (1933)
EnescuAubade for String Trio (1899)

This was the fourth concert in the Musica Viva series held at the city’s recently refurbished concert venue, Levinsky Hall on the University of Plymouth campus. It was also the first to present both conventional acoustic music for string trio and live electronic music.

Dr Robert Taub, Arts Institute Director of Music at the University, led the now customary pre-concert talk. He spoke briefly with Kurtag Trio cellist Eliza Millett, and with David Bessell, whose electronic composition, a commission by Musica Viva, was being heard for the first time at the venue. As ever, the talk proved most informative for those with a working knowledge of the subject and for those who may have come to such an event for the first time. Bessell gave a glimpse into what his three keyboards and associated electronic paraphernalia might be capable of in combination.

Trio Kurtag opened proceedings with Henry Purcell’s two three-part Fantasias. In 1680, he produced an astonishing set of Fantasias for viol consort, composed in three, four, and five parts. They are full of virtuosic counterpoint, surprising harmonic shifts, moments of persuasive dissonance and flowing fugal material, all occasionally interspersed with sections of lyrical homophony. They can, however, almost sound surprisingly modern-day, with their frequent false relations and complex rhythmic patterns, rapidly passed from one player to the next. Oddly, if the Fantasies were performed at all in Purcell’s lifetime, it would have been in private, under highly personal circumstances.

The London-based trio clearly had this firmly in mind. Shutting one’s eyes, sonically speaking we were back in the aural world of the viol consort. The sound, dynamic range, bowing and all-round articulation were worlds apart from the modern works later in the programme. This was an immaculate performance all round. Great attention and detail were lavished on an appropriately academic and erudite approach, but never devoid of expression when required. The acoustic in the hall is still rather on the dry side. One hopes it will be further tweaked to afford a little more reverberation and presence when just three stringed instruments are involved.

The Kurtag Trio returned to the platform for a performance of the three-movement String Trio by Moravian-born composer and pianist Gideon Klein (1919-1945), written in a Nazi concentration camp. Together with thousands of fellow Prague Jews, the composer had been deported to Terezin, where he continued to compose. A mere nine days after completing his String Trio, his last work, Klein was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Fürstengrube, a sub-camp near Wesoła, Poland. How Klein’s score survived after his death is a story in itself. Taub’s excellent programme notes are a great help. They clarify the chronology and help the listener to appreciate Klein’s highly moving work in the true spirit and conditions of its initial conception.

Once again, the players had clearly done their homework. Their performance of Klein’s Trio was musically accurate, especially in terms of the highly refined control of shared dynamics. Moreover, they successfully presented the work as near to its historical context as possible. That is not so easy when all the performers are at the young end of their careers. From the opening Allegro to the closing Vivace, this was a moving and memorable performance. The extended middle movement is the work’s emotional heart, a set of variations on the Moravian folksong The Kněždub Tower. The players delivered Klein’s often tormented writing with exactly the right weight of contextual emotion.

David Bessell had already set up his electronic keyboards and associated gizmos at the back of the stage. The Kurtag Trio had now temporarily left the area, but disturbing all the cable connections to bring the equipment downstage was not viable. There would have been no effect on the sound anyhow, because the stereo speakers were located down at the front.

Bessell had most succinctly outlined what his piece was all about, its implications for the listener, and the significance of the vast array of sounds to be encountered along the way. Still, even with the best will in the world, this can still come over as basically amorphous. The composer had assembled a thrilling array of sounds and effects, designed to keep the momentum and musical interest going. Even so, on first hearing the word that kept coming to mind was ‘random’.

Two things exacerbated this sensation for me. First, there was no written score. That could, of course, have meant that this was a completely free improvisation. But I had been informed it was certainly not the case: the work had been committed to memory, just like any other more conventional piece of writing. Second, there seemed to be no correlation between what Bessell appeared to be playing (on any of his three keyboards at any one time) and the sounds we were actually hearing. Perhaps an older technology might have helped here. At many organ recitals, especially when the instrument is completely out of view, a large video screen or two are positioned at the front of the stage. A mobile cameraman covers every move the organist makes – manuals, stops and pedals – so that the audience can easily share the performer’s view.

In the last paragraph of his description of the music, Bessell says: ‘This is a piece conceived musically rather than technically.’ I have to say that this was not my experience. But if Music is, in fact, ‘Sound’, then perhaps Sound is, in fact, ‘Music’?

Even if Gideon Klein’s name was new to you, once you were made aware of the inhuman conditions surrounding the composition of his String Trio, you would not expect a light-hearted work. But if you are at all familiar with the music of Jean Françaix (1912-1997), you should know that much of his music is marked by a predilection for lightness and wit, and apparently, a stated desire to give pleasure. Rather like the two opening Purcell Fantasias, he also favoured a conversational style of interplay between the musical lines. That changed little throughout his career and is already evident in his early String Trio.

From the lively opening movement, with its witty sound-play on the letters of Bach’s surname, the Scherzo with its more rapid waltz-like character, the lyrical, song-like slow movement, to the Vivo finale, and captivating little cheeky march-like ending, the Kurtag Trio were more than up for everything, and more, that the tongue-in-cheek composer could throw at them, both musically and in the various instrumental effects required. Once more, it was a stunning reading, packed full of French joie de vivre and je ne sais quoi.

To end the programme, the Kurtag Trio took us from France further east to Romania, homeland of composer, violinist and teacher George Enescu (1881-1955). His Aubade was completed in the year when he finished his studies at the Paris Conservatoire.

An aubade is a morning love song, sung as lovers part. Enescu’s is a mere four-minute-long little lilting scherzo. It projects a layered, rich texture, which has been suggested as seeking to evoke ‘a whistling lover departing on horseback, to the accompaniment of a country fiddle, a rustic Romanian folk tune in a fresh, new morning-after love’. The Kurtag Trio’s delicate yet immensely colourful performance finely captured the composer’s intentions. It seemed, at last, to engender a warmer and more noticeable rapport with the audience. It was largely felt lacking in the first half, even if, to be fair, the three opening works made far weightier emotional demands on the players.

Philip R Buttall

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