REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Chamber Music Festival 2023

Tim Lowe: Festival director and cellist

Tim Lowe and Katya Apekisheva, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York, September 15

YORK Chamber Music Festival’s tenth anniversary season bounced into life with this lunchtime recital centred round Brahms’s First Cello Sonata. The remainder of the programme involved some Beethoven variations, a couple of Tchaikovsky bonbons and two Schumann movements originally intended for horn. But it was a pleasing taster nonetheless.

The first of Brahms’s two sonatas for cello and piano, in E minor, is a surprisingly mature work, given that it mostly dates from his late twenties and is his first chamber piece for two instruments.

Compared to most of his contemporaries he was a late developer. The first movement, in which the major key makes futile attempts to take over from the minor, relies heavily on the cello’s lower range. Here the balance between the players was, rarely in this recital, not quite right and a little more heft in the cello might have solved the problem. But there was no faulting Tim Lowe’s upper register, which sang with heartfelt joy.

There was a jaunty opening to the minuet and an engaging return to its resumption after the halting trio. Bach’s influence on the finale was plain to hear and the ebb and flow between the duo after the central unison was riveting, before a decidedly edgy coda.

Beethoven’s variations on Handel’s aria See, The Conquering Hero Comes – nowadays often sung as an Easter hymn – shows a remarkable affinity for the cello’s spectrum of colours, which Lowe amply demonstrated. As so often as an accompanist, Katya Apekisheva was quick to adapt her tone to the work’s chameleon moods.

Two Tchaikovsky pieces originally intended for piano solo revealed the composer’s talent for a long-breathed melody, particularly one in a minor key. He loved his C sharp minor Nocturne, Op 19 No 4 so much that he orchestrated it. Lowe was richly touching in the little cadenza at its heart. Even more soulful was the Valse Sentimentale (Op 51 No 6 in F minor) with its passionate undercurrents.

Schumann wrote his Adagio and Allegro, Op 70 for horn and piano but allowed a cellist friend to transcribe it. In this guise it sounds remarkably different. Lowe delivered a beautifully calm line in the Adagio, and the duo captured the Allegro’s rapture superbly, with its second theme ideally balanced by the piano, before full-blown excitement at its close.

Festival Strings, National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, York, September 15

STRING quartets by Haydn and Mendelssohn preceded Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen in its original form in this evening recital, which was the first at which all of the festival’s seven resident string players were present. Looked at another way, this was late Haydn, early Mendelssohn and late Strauss, a potent combination.

Jonathan Stone led the ensemble for Haydn’s Emperor quartet, Op 76 No 3 in C, backed by John Mills as second violin, Simone van der Giessen as viola and Jonathan Aasgaard as cello. There is always an element of hazard – part of the fun, if you like – when four independent souls, mainly used to solo work, link talents, particularly in a work by Haydn that requires the utmost precision.

That hazard is increased when they opt to play with very little vibrato, as here. That decision was odd given that this is a work of the late 1790s, with several toes, if not a whole foot, in the Romantic era. That may be the reason why this combo never quite settled.

Intonation was slightly awry in the nervous first movement and even the Emperor adagio (variations on Haydn’s hymn for the Kaiser, now the German national anthem) lacked real character, virtually vibrato-less.

The minuet was much more relaxed, even chirpy, with nice shading in its trio, but the finale was a touch too fast for its semiquavers to enjoy real clarity. The overall effect was intimate where we needed to hear more of Haydn’s heart on his sleeve.

Mills took over from Stone to lead Mendelssohn’s Second Quartet, Op 13 in A minor, with Hélène Clément as the new viola. Although only 30 years separate this piece from the Haydn, the players’ difference in approach was tangible.

Right from the start, there was a new commitment. After a rich opening Adagio, inner voices shone through commendably in the turbulent Allegro. After the slow movement’s central fugato, Mills’s little recitative to return to the opening was exquisite.

The central scherzo in the Intermezzo was light and delicate, returning to the movement’s opening with a delicate rallentando, before almost no break into the restless finale. Among so much incident here, the viola’s recall of the fugato theme was a pivotal moment, briefly changing the mood, before another outbreak of violence, stilled in its turn by the violin’s pacifying cadenza, supremely executed.

Thereafter, the recall of the very opening Adagio brought comfort and calm. It had been a passionate narrative, probably inspired by the teenage Mendelssohn’s unrequited infatuation at the time.

For nearly half a century, Strauss’s Metamorphosen was known only as a piece for 23 solo strings. Then the original version, for string septet with double bass foundation, came to light in 1990. It is writing of great intensity, which grew from a lament on the bombing of Munich in 1943.

The ensemble, led again by John Mills, brought great clarity to the score’s complex tapestry. From the dark opening on lower strings, its eventual emergence into major key territory brought a gradual quickening of rhythmic life, with all the players becoming as fervent as the ‘engine-room’ of violas.

When this had subsided back into grief, the cry of pain from the top three voices was answered by a vivid tutti, after which resignation slowly took over, with Strauss’s dotted figure assuming the characteristics of a recurring sob. It had seemed to subsume remorse, regret and elegy – for all mankind.

Katya Apekisheva: All-Schubert recital

Katya Apekisheva, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York, September 16

KATYA Apekisheva is one of a very rare breed of pianists, one who is equally accomplished as a soloist and as a supportive player (otherwise known as an accompanist). She changed her originally published lunchtime programme into an all-Schubert recital, combining works written in the last year of his life, 1828.

Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke (Three Piano Pieces), D.946, of May 1828 together equal the breadth of a full-scale sonata, although their keys are not related. They are better considered as impromptus, which implies sudden inspiration, even if they are all essentially in three parts.

Apekisheva took time to adjust her tone down to the size of the venue and began quite stridently, blurring the first statement in No 1 in E flat minor with over-pedalling, an oversight that she handsomely corrected on its repeat. Still, the central melody was too loud to be much of a contrast with the opening.

No 2 in E flat major enjoyed a more tender start, although it quickly boiled into something like anger when Apekisheva produced a trombone in the left hand where a gentler bassoon would have done the trick. Then we began to sense a Viennese flavour emerging at the move to the minor key, before a beautifully smooth transition back to the calm of the opening. This was more like it.

No 3 in C major was a real crackerjack, crisp and crunchy. The central trio was trimly smooth, right down to its stormy ending, and the syncopation in the returning scherzo injected exactly the wit we had been waiting for. She was back in the groove.

September 1828, a mere two months before Schubert’s death, saw him produce no less than three full-scale piano sonatas, which together may be said to crystallise his musical philosophy. The last of these, D.960 in B flat major, has a serenity largely missing from its two predecessors, which are more volatile. Apekisheva underlined this with some of her finest playing, growing more luminous with each movement.

Her opening was very spacious, a touch slower than is traditional, but right in keeping with the composer’s marking ‘Molto moderato’. The second theme was quicker, but its melodic flow was several times impeded by a little too much rubato. There was real nobility in the slow movement’s second melody, where the trombone returned, quite justifiably this time, to her left hand. But its overall mood was deeply ruminative, even doleful.

The scherzo was flickering and fairy-light, just what the doctor ordered, with fierce accents in its trio. Apekisheva’s contrasting moods throughout the finale were testimony to her deft touch, which enabled her to convey her ideas in the subtlest ways, tiny inflexions that reflected her intelligence.

By the end she had the sunlight bursting through the detached notes in the left hand, with the movement’s magical octave opening reduced to a pianissimo before the final burst of enthusiasm. This was Apekisheva at her radiant best.

Festival Strings and Piano, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, September 16

THREE works written by English composers in the first two decades of the 20th century made an extremely satisfying combination on the festival’s second evening. Vaughan Williams’s rarely heard Piano Quintet was the centrepiece, framed by Bridge’s Three Idylls and Elgar’s Piano Quintet after the interval.

Bridge’s Three Idylls of 1906 come right out of the Edwardian playbook, those balmy years before Europe turned to war. They speak of a more Arcadian time infused with innocence. Bridge opens and closes the first, which is in C sharp minor, with a viola solo, the instrument reflecting his own professional career as a player.

Simone van der Giessen brought to it the dark colouring it demands. But with Jonathan Stone as leader the ensemble dissolved neatly into its quicker, major key section, before muting back into something calmer.

The Allegretto, No 2 in E minor, was notable for its springy rhythms, before breaking off into greater restraint. No 3 in C major, an Allegro con moto, has a catchy tune, with more than a sniff of Morris dancing; its snippets were jovially exchanged between the voices. The unexpected chorale that follows did not deter a snappy ending.

Vaughan Williams did not encourage, nor expect, his Piano Quintet in C minor (1903-5) to be played, regarding it as backward-looking. But his widow Ursula succumbed to pressure and allowed its performance only as recently as 1990. It reveals much about the composer’s early influences, as well as his likely direction of travel; we can now see it as a pivotal work, in other words.

The work is unusual in using a double bass and dispensing with a second violin. This give its bass line a firmer foundation and, with pizzicato, a more percussive impact. Its broad Brahmsian sweep at the start shows Vaughan Williams’s Romantic inclinations, before folk-song notions had grabbed his imagination. Even here, however, the second theme, with strings alone, begins to sound English and the use of the coda to give each player, including the double bass, a brief solo is a distinctive touch.

The chorale-like start to the Andante, heard in the piano and commented upon by the strings, was handled eloquently here before becoming more animated. On its return, the piano accompaniment sounded as if cribbed from his song Silent Noon, which was written the same year as this work was begun: a hazy, calming effect.

Strings and piano faced off against each other in the final Fantasia, but after Katya Apekisheva’s piano had furiously escaped the fray, they all came together in a staccato reconciliation, led by John Mills’s violin.

A wistful reminiscence, with pianistic bells tolling across the landscape, was followed by a grand build-up broken only by the piano’s return to the chorale and a quiet close that the ensemble controlled beautifully. It was hard to imagine a more revealing account of this superb work.

Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor of 1918, by contrast, was written in the wake of a searing war. Its hesitant introduction breaks into anger in its second theme, from which the ensemble, with Jonathan Stone back in the leader’s chair, did not recoil. The little three-note rhythm, a drumbeat of war, permeated the whole first movement, and the ensemble made the most of it, even in the deeply rueful ending.

The immense climax at the centre of the slow movement subsided as quickly as it arrived, and the extended coda resumed the telling harmonic stasis with which the movement had opened. The ensemble was unflaggingly insistent throughout Elgar’s heavily accented finale, building to a coda that was thrillingly optimistic.

York Chamber Music Festival marks tenth anniversary with three days of concerts

York Chamber Music Festival artistic director Tim Lowe

YORK Chamber Music Festival returns for its tenth anniversary season from September 15 to 17, once more under the artistic directorship of Tim Lowe.

Since its founding in 2013, the festival has gone from strength to strength and will celebrate its first decade by inviting six supreme string players in Europe and the British-based Russian pianist Katya Apekisheva to participate alongside cellist Lowe.

He will be joined by John Mills and Jonathan Stone, violins; Hélene Clément and Simone van der Giessen, violas; Jonathan Aasgaard, cello, and Billy Cole, double bass.    

Described by York music critic Martin Dreyer as “a mouth-watering prospect”,the full programme can be found at

Picking out highlights: Mendelssohn’s joyous String Quartet Op. 13 was his first mature chamber music, written at the age of 18, and Dvořák’s String Sextet was his first great success in chamber music, a smash hit that was soon played all over Europe.

At the other end of their careers, Elgar’s response to the First World War included his late Piano Quintet, contemporary with his famous Cello Concerto, while the string septet version of Strauss’s Metamorphosen is a moving elegy for the cultural destruction caused by the Second World War. 

In a concert of cello and piano music Lowe is joined by Katya Apekisheva in Brahms’s golden, glowing First Cello Sonata, and Apekisheva performs a solo concert to include Schubert’s great last Piano Sonata in B flat major. 

Lowe says: “In our time, Europe is once again at war and as Strauss said when he re-read his Goethe, anger is never the last word. I hope that beauty and truth will shine through during the tenth anniversary of York Chamber Music Festival. We will certainly do our best. I look forward to greeting you all in September.”

Tickets are available from the National Centre for Early Music box office, in Walmgate, at or on 01904 658338 in office hours. A Festival Saver ticket offers extra value to those wanting to attend multiple concerts. Young people aged 18 and under can attend all the events free of charge.

Pianist Katya Apekisheva

York Chamber Music Festival: the programme

Event 1: September 15, 1pm to 2pm, Cello Recital by Tim Lowe (cello) and Katya Apekisheva, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.

Beethoven: 12 Variations on See The Conqu’ring Hero Comes from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus; Brahms: Cello Sonata No.1 in E Minor, Op. 38; Tchaikovsky: Nocturne for Cello and Piano, No. 4 from 6 pieces Op. 19 and Valse Sentimentale No. 6 from Six Morceaux, Op. 51; Schumann: Adagio and AllegroOp. 70.

Event 2: September 15, 7.30pm, Festival Artists John Mills, Jonathan Stone, Hélene Clément,Simone van der Giessen, Tim Lowe, Jonathan Aasgaard and Billy Cole, National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, York.

Haydn: String Quartet Op. 76 No. 3; Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 13; Richard Strauss: Metamorphosen, version for String Septet.  

Event 3: September 16, 1pm to 2pm, Piano Recital, Katya Apekisheva, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.

Schubert: Three Piano Pieces, D946; Schubert: Piano Sonata in B flat major, D960.

Event 4: September 16, 7.30pm, Festival Artists John Mills, Jonathan Stone, Hélene Clément, Simone van der Giessen, Tim Lowe, Jonathan Aasgaard, Billy Cole and Katya Apekisheva, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York.

Frank Bridge: Three Idylls H.67; Vaughan Williams: Piano Quintet in C Minor; Elgar: Piano Quintet in A Minor, Op. 84.

Event 5: September 17, 3pm, Festival Artists John Mills, Jonathan Stone, Hélene Clément, Simone van der Giessen, Tim Lowe and Jonathan Aasgaard, St Olave’s Church, Marygate, York.

Boccherini: String Sextet No.1 in E flat Major, Op. 23 G454; Dvořák: String Sextet in A Major, Op. 48.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Chamber Music Festival, Day One

Alasdair Beatson: “The day had been Beatson’s”

Day 1 of York Chamber Music Festival, St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel and National Centre for Early Music, York, September 16

WITH five concerts packed into three days, the festival opened on Friday lunchtime with founder, artistic director and cellist Tim Lowe partnered by pianist Alasdair Beatson, in the welcoming acoustic of the St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel. Cello sonatas by Beethoven and Richard Strauss framed three sketches by Ernest Bloch.

Although his Op 102 No 1 in C major is theoretically speaking in five sections, Beethoven’s Fourth Cello Sonata is built entirely on four small motifs that occur in its opening two bars, heard on unaccompanied cello, a masterpiece of imaginative development. It should be played without a break, the single bar of pause at the end of the first Allegro vivace being integral to the whole.

It opened wistfully here, with tender dialogue, but Lowe brought a fiery approach to that first Allegro and Beatson was quick to reinforce it. There was a persistent restlessness, with an underlying anger in its staccato passages. Lowe did take a break after this, but only the one.

There was a brief calm in the Adagio, before a reminder of the opening. Then we were catapulted into a bouncy, cheerful finale, with crackerjack interjections stoking up the tension towards an emphatic ending. It all benefited immensely from the duo’s clear-sighted view of the terrain.

The three pieces which make up Bloch’s From Jewish Life (1924) made a pleasing palate-cleanser before the second main course. Predominantly in minor keys, they evoke the composer’s passion for his heritage. ‘Jewish Song’ came across as a lament here, while ‘Supplication’ was darker and more urgent. The closing ‘Prayer’ had major-key glints among the minor chords and ended on the dominant – what the Americans call a half-close – and offered hope, if with a question mark.

So to Richard Strauss, whose only Cello Sonata was completed in 1883 while he was still a teenager. There was excellent dialogue here at the start, even if it sounded as if it had come from the pen of Mendelssohn at first and then Schumann.

The acceleration in the coda was finely handled. The Andante had the feel of a funeral march, with long yearning lines; it ended with two pizzicato chords that really struck home. The finale came as an antidote, cheery and highly rhythmic, with one descending theme that reappeared in various guises. Lowe and Beatson make a good team, well matched.

The evening, at the National Centre for Early Music, featured a Haydn string quartet, a Sibelius string trio movement and a Brahms string sextet. Jonathan Stone took the leader’s chair for Haydn’s Op 76 No 2 in D minor (‘Fifths’) and brought to the opening movement a fieriness that sounded like a hangover from the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) movement of the 1770s. It was all the better for that.

His passagework as the decorations of the Andante developed was finely judged. The pianissimo in the trio amid the crudity of the Witches’ Minuet in canon made a nice touch. Haydn’s markings in the folk-influenced finale were obeyed to the letter. This was Haydn played straight, unfussy, direct and extremely neat.

The Lento from Sibelius’s unfinished String Trio in G minor is a lot more effective than its title might suggest. It was given a passionate, strongly accented reading by Tristan Gurney, Scott Dickinson and Marie Bitlloch, violin, viola and cello respectively. Its intensity rarely slackened, putting it on a par with Barber’s Adagio in that respect. Even when it turned to the major key it was hardly calmer – except at the very end where the chording was detached and very quiet.

Dickinson played Huw Watkins’s Absence eloquently after the interval, a brief reminder of what we are mourning. Then all the strings gathered for this festival launched into Brahms’s First Sextet, Op 18 in B flat. The opening was as burnished and autumnal as one could possibly wish, reaching a peak with the beautiful enunciation of its second theme by Bitlloch, here playing first cello.

The pizzicato in the coda was especially fine. The lower voices were to the fore in the ground-bass Andante, a throw-back to earlier times typical of the composer. As if in homage, the top four voices played with virtually no vibrato, sounding like viols.

The second half of the sextet was not quite so persuasive. The scherzo’s tempo was brisk enough and it moved smoothly into the trio. There was plenty of bonhomie, too, in the Rondo, even if its bursts of energy sounded a little routine. It was all tastefully done, however, and one had to marvel at how closely these musicians interacted.                                                                                                                                     

Review by Martin Dreyer

Jonathan Stone: “Violin leading the way”

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Chamber Music Festival, Day Two

Day Two of York Chamber Music Festival, St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel and Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, September 17

THE second day focused around Alasdair Beatson, a pianist at the top of his game. His satisfying solo recital at lunchtime in the Unitarian Chapel drew on lighter works by Schubert, Ravel and Schumann.

Schubert wrote dances copiously for Viennese society and foremost among his over 130 waltzes are the Valses Nobles and the Valses Sentimentales (his own French titles). They are charmingly distinct and larded with cheery tunes.

In the first-named set, D.969 (1827), Beatson was brisk and bubbly in turn, taking care to accent the second beat when what we really had was a mazurka. Notable among them was
the high-lying No 4, which twinkled star-like, and a majestic No 9 in A minor. All that was lacking was that final touch of Viennoiserie.

Ravel avowedly based his own Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (1911) around Schubert’s models. They emerged with unexpected clarity, despite occasional fierce cross-rhythms and the busy fin de siècle atmosphere of No 4, which seemed to presage La Valse in its piano duet version. Beatson toned down opportunities for rubato.

Faschingsschwank Aus Wien (Carnival Jest From Vienna) was the ripest fruit to emerge from Schumann’s winter in that city (1838-9). He described it as a romantic showpiece, but it is essentially a fantasia in five unbroken movements. Beatson opened with immense panache, but found a touching lightness for the minor-key Romance that follows.

He smoothly negotiated the Scherzino’s witty key-changes and made an extended song of the succeeding Intermezzo.

The finale, which Schumann added after his return to Leipzig, is marked vivacissimo and is a serious test of any player’s virtuosity. But it proved no hurdle for Beatson’s lithe technique.

He was back less than six hours later at the Lyons Concert Hall, this time in a supporting role. Solo pianists rarely make equally good accompanists; Beatson is the exception that proves the rule. He was unfailingly witty and alert in piano quartets by Beethoven and Dvořák, which followed a string sextet by Boccherini.

There was more than a hint of menace in the slow opening of Beethoven’s E flat quartet, Op 16, itself a transcription from a quintet for piano and winds, its piano part unaltered. But it was quickly dispelled in the Allegro.

A sense of mystery briefly returned in the development section. But good humour returned in the coda, not least when Beethoven seemed to take a ‘wrong turn’. Beatson milked
the ensuing break – a potential cadenza – for a fraction longer than marked. It was hilarious.

The two minor-key episodes in the slow rondo were soulful indeed, before a quietly meditative coda. Beatson was the epitome of delicacy here. The final rondo was a romp with a touch of hunting-field drama at its centre.

Dvorak’s Second Piano Quartet, Op 87 in E flat, is a supremely confident work. With Jonathan Stone’s violin leading the way, the Allegro’s development section became highly theatrical, presaging a huge climax just before the end.

Tim Lowe’s moving cello set the tone at the start of the slow movement, Stone emulating him in the minor section. Sarah-Jane Bradley’s watchful viola provided the harmonic
meat in the sandwich.

Encouraged by Beatson’s impish piano, the waltz that followed was close to flippant, smiles on all the players’ faces, until the finale’s jollity took us into the heart of Bohemia (where
it was written).

Boccherini was the father of the string sextet, but is rarely appreciated as such, so it was salutary to hear his Op 23 No 5 in F minor at the start of the evening. Tristan Gurney was in the leader’s chair here and duetted charmingly with his violin colleague Jonathan Stone in an opening movement that was light and lively, even if the cello roles at this point were mainly perfunctory. There was plenty of rhythmic interest in the minuet.

Pathos only really arrived with the mournful Grave assai, which was surprisingly
chromatic. Constantly shifting groupings in the finale revealed the composer at his best and were smoothly negotiated. It was a neat historical sidelight. But the day had been Beatson’s.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on York Chamber Music Festival: Day 3, Merchant Taylors’ Hall, York, September 18

Jonathan Stone: “Violin found a beautifully lyrical legato for the outer sections”

THE final day of this tightly compressed festival took place in a venue rarely associated with music-making but which worked out well.

Chamber music is not designed for large halls and the intimacy of a smaller arena lends itself to better understanding of the music’s components. The menu for this mid-afternoon event offered the resident strings in Richard Strauss’s sextet from his opera Capriccio and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, for the same forces.

Strauss wrote virtually no chamber music beyond the age of 30, so this sextet (1942) is a rarity for him. It forms the prologue to the opera, supposedly the latest piece from the pen of the composer who vies with the poet for a young countess’s attention.

It opens and closes serenely, the gentleness broken only by a passionate outpouring marked by tremolos. The ensemble was led by Jonathan Stone, whose violin found a beautifully lyrical legato for the outer sections. There was plenty of heartthrob in the middle.

Tristan Gurney took the leader’s chair for the Tchaikovsky, which was sketched in Moscow on return from the composer’s last holiday in Florence. He finished it in 1892, two years later. He confessed to difficulty in writing for this combination and it is not an easy work to bring off. But you wouldn’t have known it here.

There was a magical ebb and flow to the opening rondo, with intriguing dialogue permeating its pizzicato moments. The coda was pure excitement. Gurney’s violin lit up the opening of the Andante, with Tim Lowe’s cello responding with equal ardour, as they became at first a duo and then a trio, joined by Scott Dickinson’s viola, over a featherbed of pizzicato from the others. In between there was some rich chording.

The song-like third movement was given an amusing trio, led by the first viola. Although Tchaikovsky left no clues, the finale sounded as if based on folk-dances, its two stomping themes eventually coalescing into a fugue that was played with immense emphasis here. The ensemble threw all caution to the winds and poured its soul into a breath-taking coda.

There is no doubt that the intensity of a few days working together, over several events, lends itself to an intimate understanding between the players. When talents such as these submerge themselves, the whole becomes much greater than the sum of the parts. It is – and was – exhilarating.

Review by Martin Dreyer