REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Sacconi Quartet & Tim Lowe, BMS York, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York, October 1

Sacconi Quartet’s Ben Hancox (violin), Robin Ashwell (cello), Hannah Dawson (violin) and Cara Berridge (cello): Performed Schubert’s incomparable String Quartet in C and York composer Nicola LeFanu’s newly commissioned Quartet, both a celebration and a reflection. Picture: Emilie Bailey

FORTUNE favours the brave. Back in May when the Covid outlook was far from clear, the British Music Society of York (BMS) took the courageous decision to go ahead with their 100th season in October. It had already been delayed a year.

This quintet – a string quartet with added cello – was the happy result, in a members-only evening last Friday.

Schubert’s incomparable String Quintet in C was preceded by the world premiere of an engaging new BMS commission for the same forces from Nicola LeFanu, one of the society’s two vice-presidents.

Titled simply Quintet and lasting some 20 minutes, it lives up to the composer’s typically lucid programme-note as a combination of celebration and reflection, which are mirrored in two contrasting themes. The faster of these provides a rondo motif while the slower inspires its diversions.

The device works excellently. The two cellos generally operate as a pensive pair, while the higher strings interrupt, sometimes intensely, always excitedly, often preferring a catchy iambic rhythm when not adding twinkling filigrees. But all of the instruments have something individual to say.

At the centre of the work is a solemn chorale, after which the second cello has a broad, yearning passage – which Tim Lowe attacked with relish. This is the signal for mounting urgency that is capped by a return to the opening cello duet at the close. Did I detect here the semitone with which Schubert so determinedly ends his quintet?

Second cellist Tim Lowe: “The engine” in Schubert’s String Quartet in C

The Sacconi and Lowe brought fervent application to their task, clearly enjoying its challenge. The music makes real sense on a first hearing, but would also repay deeper listening. It certainly commends itself as a partner to the Schubert.

Any players faced with one of the towering monuments of Western music will feel humbled. This manifests itself in different ways. Here there was a studied intensity to the first two movements of the Schubert, before an earthier Scherzo and a finale infused with the spirit of dance.

The mood of anticipation in the introduction was satisfied when the Allegro got going, but the repeat of the exposition was much tauter (and rhythms wittier too) than its first statement.

Second cellist Lowe was the engine, as in several places later, for the development section. He also ignited more fire in the middle of the slow movement – although the pregnant rests that followed were a tutti effort, before the heart of the Adagio hovered beautifully again.

In the Scherzo, the ensemble really began to relax, so much so that its Trio almost ground to a halt, it was so leisurely. In the circumstances, the return of the Scherzo came almost as a relief. 

The finale, so often a let-down in this work, was anything but: there was even an element of mystery before the main theme returned. Doubt lingered as to whether all five players shared the same overall vision for this piece. But the BMS is back in business. Hurrah!

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Albany Piano Trio at the Lyons, York, 14/2/2020

The Albany Piano Trio

REVIEW: Albany Piano Trio, British Music Society of York, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, February 14 ***

GHOSTS are not generally associated with St Valentine’s Day, but orchids certainly could be. We had both in the Albany Piano Trio’s outing for the British Music Society of York, with the headily perfumed trio by Ravel and some romantic seasoning by Bloch thrown in for good measure.

The “Ghost” arrived courtesy of Beethoven’s Trio, Op 70 No 1, whose nickname it is (though conferred by Czerny, not by the composer). There was plenty of violence, as there should be, in the opening movement. But the players seemed to be ploughing their own furrows and ensemble was not always as exact as it might have been.

It was just as well that Philippa Harrison kept her piano lid on the short stick rather than wide open: she was in forceful mood all evening. Indeed, she was regularly more characterful than her colleagues, who laboured very competently but with intermittent ardour. But all three found the requisite ferocity for the coda.

The unnerving variations of the eerie slow movement were a little apologetic. Beethoven does not hold back here, neither should performers. But its demons were revived in the finale, thanks to the piano’s strong accents. They were finally driven out by high cello and low violin – after some skeletal pizzicatos – as the composer’s sardonic humour turned friendly at the close.

Victorian “orchidelirium” – a mania for discovering and collecting orchids – inspired Judith Bingham’s The Orchid And Its Hunters, an Albany commission that the trio premiered in 2016. Its five brief sections are vignettes evoking dangerous journeys to garner these exotic flowers from remote locations worldwide.

Their diffuse colourings suggested impressionistic water-colours rather than full-blown oils. They became gradually brisker as wide intervals and splashy piano chords became smoother and, eventually, more urgent, as if the flowers were under threat. The Albany were surefooted throughout, taking the changes in their stride.

Swiss by birth, Bloch wrote his only work for piano trio in 1924, the year he became an American citizen. His Three Nocturnes proved rather engaging, largely romantic and lyrical, though the percussive syncopation of the last one hinted at modernity.

The first movement of Ravel’s Piano Trio was the Albany’s best moment, its jumpy rhythms clean and its acceleration finely calibrated. Pantoum, which follows, became a volatile, piano-drive harlequinade, sharply contrasted with the chorale-like Passacaille. Vigorous piano in the finale suggested fountains spraying wildly in a gusty wind. This was all but a full-blown piano concerto.

The Albany did enough to show that they are capable of considerable finesse. Not enough of it was on show here, however. And they would be well advised to let their fingers do the talking in place of under-prepared, under-projected spoken intros. The Lyons is not a good place for speech.   

Review by Martin Dreyer