REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Post War Paris and Trio Mazzolini, North York Moors Chamber Music Festival

Nicholas Daniel: “Restrained crescendo”

North York Moors Chamber Music Festival: Post War Paris; Trio Mazzolini, Welburn Manor Marquee, August 19 and 20

POULENC was the chosen representative of Paris in the eras after the two World Wars, with Prokofiev in his neo-classical prime characterising the Roaring Twenties. But last Thursday evening’s programme was given in more or less reverse chronological order.

Poulenc’s only three sonatas for solo wind instruments date from the last five years of his life. All were written in memory of friends as he began to contemplate his own demise. But they are far from elegiac, combining reminiscence with levity: Poulenc is rarely able to keep a straight face for long.

The Oboe Sonata of 1962, the last to be written, is the most outwardly mournful of the three and remembers Prokofiev. Nicholas Daniel’s oboe took a leisurely approach to the opening Élégie, describing a giant arch that reached a restrained crescendo before subsiding placidly, accompanied every step of the way by Katya Apekisheva’s sensitive piano.

The scherzo was typically flippant, but more than balanced by a pensive finale, where the action was mainly in the piano while the oboe wept.

Five years earlier, Poulenc had written his Flute Sonata, formally in memory of his patron
Elizabeth Sprague but fired by the spirit of his friend Raymonde Linossier. Thomas Hancox brought verve to the puckish opening, with smooth legato in the central Cantilena. He was even lighter on his toes in the finale – which is briefly interrupted by an elegy when Poulenc remembers to be serious.

Hancox brought a trigger-jerk to the start of every phrase, which was fine at exciting moments but distracting when the going was supposed to be calmer.

The sounds of Paris were much more apparent in the Clarinet Sonata, where Matthew
Hunt was soloist, partnered by Alasdair Beatson’s piano. Although in memory of Honegger, it was written for Benny Goodman, hence its several nods towards jazz. Its central Romanza was especially affecting but the shrieks in the finale were pure Benny. This duo mixed flair with finesse.

Prokofiev’s Quintet in G minor, Op 39 began life as a ballet, Trapeze, written in 1924, using the unusual combo of oboe and clarinet, with violin, viola and double bass. It reeks of circus life. The winds are so dominant in the opening that one feared for balance, but the double bass led the way in the following movement, often made to sound like a cello, with quirkily dissonant outcomes.

Similarly later, rapid bass pizzicato, imitated by the other strings, led to a crazy ending in the Allegro Precipitato. Straight out of the Twenties, the finale, although in three-time, was more Charleston than waltz. Nikita Naumov’s bass was the star of this show.

Poulenc’s Trio, Op 43, written only two years after the Prokofiev, was much more backward-looking, even nostalgic in its romanticism. It linked Daniel’s oboe and Beatson’s piano to Amy Harman’s bassoon. Its long-limbed Andante might almost have been late Brahms; it was lovingly presented.

The trio made teasing use of the many rests at the end of their jaunty Rondo, probing Poulenc’s wit to its limits.

Last Friday lunchtime, it was the turn of the Trio Mazzolini to take their place as the last of the Young Artists in the festival, an initiative, incidentally, that has been a great success by all accounts.

Piano trios by Haydn and Mendelssohn framed the 1998 trio by Judith Weir. This is a work of refreshing directness and clarity that wears its heart on its sleeve. The bells of St Mark’s, Venice ring through the opening movement which radiates exotic tints of the barcarole that is Schubert’s Gondelfahrer, its inspiration.

The strings handled the harmonics of the Scherzo deftly, and the taut curlicue motif in the
finale was positively crystalline here. The Mazzolinis clearly revelled in this idiom.

The Haydn, a late work in C major, was notable for the ensemble’s use of rubato, which carried more than a hint of signposting that the music does not need. Still, Harry Rylance’s piano passagework in the finale was impressive, even if his partners struggled to achieve a good balance.

We heard more from the strings in Mendelssohn’s Trio No 2 in C minor, although Yurie Lee’s cello could have afforded to project even more. The highlight was the Andante, the trio negotiating its rolling acres beautifully together and bringing it to a lovely close.

There was exciting propulsion in the Scherzo and the sweeping piano chorale in the final Allegro heralded a sweet-toned outpouring from Jack Greed’s violin. This is a
talented trio, with Rylance an exceptionally agile pianist, even if one could not always be sure that he was listening to his colleagues as keenly as he might.

This brought an end to my festival, which has been even more satisfying than last year’s – and that is saying something. The Welburn Marquee must surely become a fixture. Even allowing for a few bleating lambs and the odd passing tractor, it has an intimacy that is somehow exactly suited to chamber music and the audience this year has exulted in the many treasures it has heard. The rapport between listeners and players has been second to none.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Connecting Voices, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, 17/10/2020

Beautifully differentiated vowels: Gillene Butterfield as Elle in La Voix Humaine at Leeds Playhouse. Picture: Anthony Robling

Connecting Voices, Opera North and Leeds Playhouse, at Leeds Playhouse, October 17

COLLABORATIONS between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse in recent years have been proving increasingly fruitful.

This latest, a four-show programme in different locations throughout the Playhouse, was just what the doctor ordered: its umbrella title Connecting Voices homed in on the social interactions we have all been craving.

It was designed to “examine the power and expression of the solo voice” and ranged the gamut from pure opera to straight theatre.

Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix Humaine, in the Barber Studio, led the way. In Sameena Husain’s production, Gillene Butterfield poured her heart and voice into Elle’s desperate efforts to repair her faltering romance, using telephones from three different eras.

Plus ça change! She might as well have been on Zoom, so vivid were her emotions, made more so by superb diction and – a rarity among sopranos in my experience – beautifully differentiated vowels.

Annette Saunders’ piano was ideally attuned, blasting out jagged darts whenever Elle listened, calm when she spoke. The two of them combined to notable effect in the nostalgic waltz that follows Elle’s highest outburst.

Riveting voice: Niall Buggy in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Picture: Anthony Robling

Opera North was involved in two of the remaining items. Under its Resonance programme for Black and Asian musicians, Reflections: Dead And Wake explored the Caribbean funerary tradition of Nine-Nights from a specifically Jamaican perspective.

Alongside ethnic choruses, sounding perhaps more African than Caribbean, Paulette Morris caressed her solo songs lovingly. The recurring soundscape of Jamaican voices by the director Khadijah Ibrahiim was not especially intelligible, but certainly added atmosphere.

Among similar non-native sounds was the powerful contribution of the rapper Testament (aka Andy Brooks), in the title role of Orpheus In The Record Shop, injecting much sardonic humour while doubling as composer and writer.

Aletta Collins’ production gradually introduced eight members of the Opera North orchestra and the excellent wordless mezzo of Helen Évora, to bring an optimistic conclusion as bankruptcy loomed. Definitely a tale for our times.

The other riveting voice was that of Niall Buggy, raging and cackling against the dying of the light and his own misspent years in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Dominic Hill. Like the Poulenc, it was written in 1958.

These days, theatre staff are front-line workers too. The small army of stewards here, totally tuned in and extremely helpful, deserve a final word of thanks.                                                   

Review by Martin Dreyer