REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Martin Roscoe, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, March 18

Martin Roscoe: “Let’s his fingers do the talking. They are certainly eloquent

PIANISTS do not come much more deceptive than Martin Roscoe, who closed the British Music Society of York’s season with this recital of Schubert, Brahms and Liszt.

He goes against convention by using a score – no harm in that, especially if you consult it as little as he did. Having walked unassumingly to the keyboard, he plays without fuss or histrionics. In other words, he lets his fingers do the talking. They are certainly eloquent.

Although Schubert’s second set of impromptus, D.935, was not published until 11 years after his death, he had presented them as a foursome to his publisher (who, incredibly, rejected them). There is no suggestion that they are the movements of a sonata, but there is undeniably a feeling that they are related – for one thing, the first and fourth are in the same key, F minor. Certainly, I have never felt them to be so closely linked as they sounded here.

There was an understated elegance in Roscoe’s approach. He unfolded the opening Allegro moderato gently, melting smoothly from the minor to the major key and back again. There was a touch more emphasis in the second, marked Allegretto.

The ‘Rosamunde’ variations were beautifully contrasted: the three different voices in the second variation, for example, emerged with lovely clarity. The sense of impromptu, essentially improvisation, was kindled most keenly in the final dance, especially in the link to the return of the main theme.

The three Brahms intermezzi, Op 117, which are late, autumnal pieces, emerged as if they were the composer’s innermost thoughts, at once intimate and revealing. A lovely cantabile flow permeated the first, while it was the inner voices of the more sombre second that gleamed to the surface in turn. The syncopations of the third, which might have felt more restless, were not allowed to disrupt its serenity.

Petrarch’s Sonnet 104 finds the poet in a confused state over a burning love affair. Liszt’s reaction to it was first to set it as a song and then, more famously, to transcribe that into a piano piece, which appears in the Italian volume of his Years of Pilgrimage. Roscoe treated its harmonies tenderly, as if aware that the topic was sensitive, and it unfolded logically to its bitter-sweet close.

In both the remaining Liszt pieces, there must have been plenty of temptation to treat the piano as an orchestra; Liszt piles on the pressure relentlessly. Roscoe resisted. Isolde’s Love-Death, his transcription of the closing scene from Wagner’s Tristan Und Isolde, reached a passionate but controlled climax, with the lovers finally achieving satisfaction together after death.

Even more orchestral was St Francis’s triumphant walk on the waves, its rushing, stormy figurations not disrupting the relentless flow. Here we had the only out-and-out fortissimo of the evening. After that, a quiet Beethoven Bagatelle seemed the perfect antidote as encore. An evening of impeccable taste and considerable virtuosity.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Perpetuo Trio, British Music Society, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York, February 18

Perpetuo Trio pianist Libby Burgess

THE piano trio called Perpetuo brought Mozart and Mendelssohn to the British Music Society of York’s table, framing a piece by Cheryl Frances-Hoad written in 2005.

The Mozart was run-of-the-mill, the Mendelssohn invigorating, but Frances-Hoad’s ten-minute offering contained much more than its brief length might imply.

My Fleeting Angel was inspired by a Sylvia Plath short story, The Wishing Box, which deals with a married couple’s contrasting dreams. I confess that the story it purported to tell – music cannot describe, only evoke – passed me by, but made no difference to its pleasing effect.

It opened with string harmonics, which did not bode well, but the whirling piano soon shook the others into rhythmic life and all three continued in tight harness. The excitement eventually slowed right down, although the sense of a tonal centre continued.

The concluding Allegretto eleganza delivered an extended wind-up to an abrupt ending. It was a tantalising conclusion, begging the question “What next?”, but none the worse for that.

Cellist Cara Berridge

Mendelssohn’s First Piano Trio, Op 49 in D minor, written in 1839, was acclaimed by Schumann, no less, as “the master trio of our age”. It got off to an expressive start, although Cara Berridge might have made a little more of the cello’s sweeping theme. But all was forgiven in a recapitulation of immense excitement.

Apart from the passionate conversation at its centre, the song-like slow movement made a gentle contrast, with Libby Burgess’s piano setting the tone. It ended in a heavenly hush.

After a neat and light scherzo, which disappeared into the heavens – another trademark Mendelssohn touch – the violin of Jamie Campbell really came into its own in the spirited finale. With the piano cascading up and down, there was still time for a moment to draw in the listener when the strings resorted to pizzicato against the keyboard’s staccato. Best of all, balance remained excellent despite all the exuberance.

Mozart’s G major trio, K.496 of 1786 had not provided the best of starts. The opening Allegro was clear but uninvolving, with more than a touch of caution, and the slow movement was more languid than liquid. There was a certain amount of drama in the final set of variations. But Frances-Hoad livened things up and Mendelssohn did the rest.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Paul Lewis, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, January 14

Paul Lewis: ” A strain of melancholy threaded through the evening but the result was riveting”

PAUL Lewis is among Britain’s finest pianists. So to have him visit York at the invitation of the British Music Society – which is enjoying a bumper season – was a special privilege.

He presented two of Beethoven’s better-known sonatas, the ‘Pathétique’ and the ‘Appassionata’ (not names assigned by the composer), which framed a Debussy suite and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasy.

A strain of melancholy threaded through the evening but the result was riveting. The opening Grave of the ‘Pathétique’ was exceptionally spacious, with chord-resolutions delayed to the absolute maximum, so that the succeeding Allegro, taken at lightning pace, felt even quicker by contrast.

The accompanimental figures in the slow movement were rich and dark, which lent the main melody, beautifully sustained, an autumnal fireside warmth. In contrast, the rondo theme in the finale was surprisingly light and frisky at first, becoming progressively more urgent until its resolute last appearance, which recaptured the intensity of the very opening of the work.

Debussy’s Children Corner suite is not kiddies’ music, either for players or listeners. Lewis offered the pretence that it was, touching in the details of these character-pieces with a delicate brush while keeping their droll humour to the fore.

Jimbo’s clumsy lullaby, the doll’s clockwork serenade and a snowy white-out were but preludes to the loneliness of the little shepherd and the Golliwogg’s self- satisfied strut (with a moment of self-doubt thrown in). It was hard not to smile throughout.

Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasy Op 61 in A flat. which dates from 1846, three years before he died, is one of the most forward-looking pieces he ever penned. It belonged next to Debussy in this programme exactly because it is so impressionistic.

Its dance element – the polonaise section of the title – only really becomes clear towards the end, after a considerable stretch of varying, improvisatory ramblings. Lewis excelled in differentiating its many changes of colour, where lesser pianists can get lost in its brambles. In his hands it became a ballade, often tinged with melancholy, with the third of its three main sections building persuasively into dramatic closure.

By now, Lewis’s adrenaline must really have been flowing: volatility was the name of his game in Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’, Op 57 in F minor. Where there was some cloudiness in the first movement’s bass line, its very detail endowed the central variations with a marvellous nobility, stoically underpinning the increasingly taxing decorations.

He preferred to gloss over the ‘ma non troppo’ (not too much) of the third movement’s Allegro – which added to its fearsome frenzy but left little acceleration in reserve for the closing Presto. No matter: it still became a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, daringly delivered.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on The Heath Quartet, British Music Society of York

The Heath Quartet, now led by violinist Marije Johnston, second from right

The Heath Quartet, British Music Society of York (BMS), Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, December 3

THE Heath Quartet last appeared in York exactly ten years ago. At that time, they were led by their founder, Oliver Heath. Then he decided to seek pastures new and Marije Johnston took his place.

What you would never guess from this performance is that that exchange took place a mere four months ago. Johnston’s pedigree as a chamber musician allowed her to slot seamlessly into place. Bear that in mind as you read on.

At first sight, the pairing of late Janáček and late Beethoven string quartets – played in that order – looks quirky, even fanciful. The works were written almost exactly 100 years apart, each within a year of the composer’s death. They formed the Heath Quartet’s sparkling, I dare even say memorable, programme for the BMS of York.

Janacek’s Second Quartet – known as ‘Intimate Letters’ and encapsulating the turbulent emotions of his more than 700 letters to Kamila Stösslová, his much younger muse in his final decade – has four movements but with constantly changing tempos in each.

The seven movements of Beethoven’s Op 131 in C sharp minor run into one another, making the work equally restless, if not more so. Near death they may have been, but each man was writing in the white heat of unbridled inspiration. The parallels are uncanny.

So the Janáček turned out to be a perfect intro into the Beethoven: they were men on the same kind of mission. The Heaths tuned into that immediately.

Apart from the cellist, who sat on a small plinth, the others stood to play, which allowed them freedom of movement. Johnston, playing second fiddle here, and viola player Gary Pomeroy took full advantage, swaying and bending ceaselessly. Sara Wolstenholme, leading, remained much calmer. But none of this affected their ensemble; they breathed, and played, as one.

The key player in the Janáček is the viola, who represents Kamila. Pomeroy did not disappoint. The work veers, sometimes wildly, between tension and lyricism and he skilfully spearheaded the latter.

Janáček’s yearnings welled up regularly, almost physically so in the slow second movement with palpitations and a devilish Ländler-style dance. The ebbs and flows of the third movement seemed to disintegrate into disillusionment in its adagio section, while the Dumka finale with its spine-tingling tremolos juxtaposed slow-moving melancholy with much livelier excitement. This was vivid musical autobiography, tellingly told.

In the Beethoven, the violinists changed places, so that Johnston now led. This symbolised just how closely all four players are integrated with one another. The piece marks a virtual renaissance of the 18th century divertimento, so diffuse is its layout.

The duos of the opening fugue were quietly menacing, but the succeeding Allegro was both playful and intimate; once again the Heaths were alive to sudden mood-changes. The central variations were delicately drawn.

The Presto, taken at a good clip, was treated like a scherzo, full of good humour and a lightness of touch we might expect in Mendelssohn. The finale’s two themes were beautifully contrasted, culminating in a ferociously determined final burst. Here, more than ever, we had the sense of theatre that infused the whole evening. This always was – and still is – a quartet worth travelling a long way to hear.

Review by Martin Dreyer

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