THERE was a distinct start-of-term feeling about this fixture, in which Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Elgar’s First Symphony were preceded by a Dvorak concert overture.
It was refreshing to see several new, youthful faces in the orchestra, which was conducted by its musical director Simon Wright. But the advent of new blood, however welcome, inevitably carries an element of adjustment as compensation is made for retirees and incomers find their feet.
This may help to explain the tentative air about Dvorak’s In Nature’s Realm, where the strings initially lacked focus. But the composer’s orchestration increasingly gained in colour and the work finished confidently.
David Greed retired last summer after a mighty 44 years as leader of the Orchestra of Opera North, but thankfully has resisted reaching for the carpet slippers, continuing to freelance widely. As soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, he made an immediate impression with the sweetness of his upper range.
There was a rallentando into the second theme and an even bigger one before the cadenza, where he really let the music breathe rather than dazzle with mere virtuosity. The slow movement was an intimate affair at first, which made for a bigger contrast when the agitated central section arrived. When the opening returned, Greed was back to sharing quiet confidences with his audience, allowing us to wallow in Mendelssohn’s luscious melody.
The bridge passage into the final rondo was beautifully elongated, keeping us tantalised with expectation. When the Allegro at last arrived it had all the flair and brilliance that the score implies, with Wright maintaining a strongly rhythmic backing to the soloist’s rapid figurations.
The coda was even more dazzling. But Greed was always at the service of the music rather than imposing his personality upon it showily, a refreshing and ultimately satisfying approach.
Elgar’s Symphony No 1 in A flat carries his favourite marking of nobilmente over its motto theme, but apart from the brass here, it was less than noble at first. But there was plenty of vivacity in the Allegro when it came and a nicely contrasting hush with the recall of its opening. What really impressed was the neatly controlled inner detail. Brass provided fire whenever needed.
The scherzo was exciting right from the start, with real precision from the strings and no let-up on the journey into the march-like second theme. Much tender phrasing infused the slow movement, particularly in the outer strings; there was an achingly elegiac feel to its closing pages.
Wright handled the transition into the last movement’s Allegro beautifully, where the main statement was superbly bold. The motto theme emerged more strongly than ever, symbolising the orchestra’s gradual resurgence throughout the evening. Things are shaping up nicely, not only for this season but well beyond.
YORK international concert pianist Sarah Beth Briggs releases her new album, Variations, today.
Available worldwide through AVIE, it follows the success of her Austrian Connections disc, which received a five-star review from Musical Opinion.
“Lyricism and dance are the watchwords of Briggs’s beautifully prepared performances…a player at the height of her powers,” the reviewer enthused.
Recorded at the Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Wales, with support from the Nimbus Foundation, Variations finds Sarah exploring five sets of Variations by great masters of the genre, some of them relatively rarely heard on the concert platform.
Mozart’s exquisite late Duport Variations pave the way for Beethoven, who, after “‘showing the British what a treasure they have in God Save The King”, threw out the rule book of traditional variation form in his beautifully crafted yet still much overlooked Opus 34 set.
Before concluding with Brahms’s deeply poignant tribute to Robert Schumann, Sarah plumbs the depths of Mendelssohn’s much recorded Variations Serieuses, true to the spirit of the title, which indicates the composer’s desire to go far beyond merely demonstrating a pianist’s virtuoso capabilities.
“For my 50th birthday year recording, I was keen to highlight the progress of Variation form through the classical and romantic eras and wanted to contrast a much performed and recorded set (Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses) with some of the lesser known and performed variations by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms,” says Sarah.
“I first learnt Mozart’s Duport Variations in my teens, and they were a test piece when I played in the first round of the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. I’ve loved them ever since – there’s so much that’s joyful (and very operatic!) about them!”
Sarah recorded Beethoven’s Seven Variations on God Save The King purely by chance, but now, serendipitously, they could not be better timed for King Charles’s upcoming coronation.
“It’s strange to think I was recording Beethoven’s God Save The King Variations when Queen Elizabeth II was alive, never imagining that the timing of the release would be shortly before King Charles III’s coronation,” she says.
“I’m particularly delighted to have included them in the album programme at what turns out to be such an appropriate moment in history. Beethoven made it clear that he believed the British had a ‘treasure’ in God Save The King and he has a lot of fun embellishing it!”
Sarah continues: “His Opus 34 set is much less frequently performed than the Eroica set that immediately follows it, but my love of these variations goes back to growing up with my own late teacher Denis Matthews’ recording of them. They’re beautifully crafted, yet certainly showing Beethoven the revolutionary – throwing out the rule book of traditional variation form.”
Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses need little introduction to classical music lovers, says Sarah. “I’ve had a soft spot for them for as long as I can remember,” she reveals. “I approached them from the early days of studying with Denis with a real wish to understand the importance of Mendelssohn’s title – the word ‘serious’ distinguishing them from the sometimes frivolous variations of the time, which were largely about showing off.
“The key for me here is to view the variations as truly great music, rather than purely for their virtuoso qualities, and much of the excitement of playing them is keeping something in reserve so the whole set can build to a really exciting conclusion.”
Sarah finishes with the Brahms Schumann Variations. “They have almost overwhelming depth and sadness, alongside moments of high drama,” she says. “I see this set as a true masterwork. A wonderful tribute both to Robert Schumann (who had just been admitted to an asylum following his attempted suicide) and to his wife Clara (the dedicatee), who was at the time pregnant with their seventh child.
“It is hard to believe that this is the writing of a 21-year-old man, but certainly indicates Brahms’ great genius. It feels a suitably great work with which to conclude this particular musical journey.”
Discussing her performance plans for Variations, Sarah says: “While I have previously performed the works that feature in my album individually, I’ve chosen to wait to perform a programme built on a larger part of this release until the autumn season.
“I look forward to performing Variations Plus (featuring some of the disc programme alongside other works that take the form of variations but aren’t actually titled as such!) in numerous venues throughout the UK.”
Sarah’s Yorkshire appearance will be in November as part of the Music In The Round series at the Sheffield Crucible. Watch this space for more details.
“Part of my programme planning has centred around linking my great interest in Hans Gál (whose music I have made several recordings of) with my latest Variations project, so at the heart of my Variations Plus programme is Hans Gál’s Piano Sonata from 1927, which includes a set of variations as its rather haunting third movement,” she says.
“That ties up nicely with my first live performance of the Gál Piano Concerto (which I made the world premiere recording of) later this year in Germany with the Hofer Symphoniker.”
See Sarah Beth Briggs’s album preview below:
Sarah Beth Briggs: Variations
Mozart: Variations on a Minuet by Duport, K573
Beethoven: Seven Variations on God Save The King, WoO78
Beethoven: Six Variations on an Original Theme in F major, Op 34
Mendelssohn: Variations Sérieuses, Op 54
Brahms: Variations on a theme by Robert Schumann, Op 9
OUTSIDE, a chill wind rattled in off the North Sea, but inside St Hilda’s this piano trio recital promoted by North York Moors Chamber Music was more like the first cuckoo in spring, heralding warmer times, especially the NYMCM’s own festival in August.
Trios by Beethoven and Mendelssohn were prefaced by duos featuring the violin and cello in turn. Charlotte Scott’s succulent violin put everyone in the mood straight away. Svendsen’s popular Romance, Op 26 of 1881, originally for violin and orchestra, can easily sound hackneyed. In her hands, it came up fresh and new, moving from dreamy elegy to full-blown romanticism. Daniel Lebhardt’s piano kept in close attendance.
Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op 70 No 2 in E flat has suffered by comparison with its companion piece, the ‘Ghost’ trio, if only because it lacks a nickname. Its generally warm aura reflects the friendship Beethoven enjoyed with the Hungarian Countess Erdödy, to whom Czerny claimed it was secretly dedicated.
The ensemble found tranquillity in its opening Poco sostenuto, where each instrument suggests a different key before it settles into E flat. There was a lovely transparency in the recapitulation, the quiet opening echoed magically. In the second movement’s double theme and variations – a device much favoured by Haydn but rarely by Beethoven – we heard the two dances, major and minor, coolly differentiated.
The succeeding, song-like Allegretto was notable for the conversation between unaccompanied strings and piano at its heart. The finale’s stormy centre had a powerfully symphonic feel, reaching a majestic climax. Donald Tovey describes it as “stupendous”. It certainly was here.
Jamie Walton brought his most mellow string tone to bear on Mendelssohn’s last Song without Words, Op 109 in D, written for cello and piano. He was particularly sumptuous in its central section and there was a nice tenuto before the recall of the opening.
Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Trio, No 2 in C minor, benefited especially from Lebhardt’s light-fingered pianism. The merging of the two themes in the energetic first movement was cleanly done and the outer sections of the ‘fairy’ Scherzo were extremely nimble.
In a hell-for-leather finale, however, the trio sounded as if in combat with one another and the triumphant chorale emerged with less clarity than it deserved. But one could only admire the commitment this represented, a virtue in evidence throughout the programme.
Review by Martin Dreyer
North York Moors Chamber Music Festival will run from August 13 to 26. Box office: 07722 038990 or northyorkmoorsfestival.com.
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.
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.