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: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Turn Of A Century/Through War, North York Moors Chamber Music Festival

James Gilchrist: “As always, he brought intensity to every phrase, delving well below the surface of the
poetry”

North York Moors Chamber Music Festival: Turn Of A Century/Through War, Welburn Manor Marquee, August 16 and 17

FESTIVALS would not be festive if they delivered only run-of-the-mill fare. From time to time, as here, it is absolutely right that they plough new furrows.

Turn Of A Century looked at two works written by composers before they had become famous, Richard Strauss and Béla Bartók.

Strauss was a mere 20 years old when he finished his Piano Quartet in C minor (1884). It is the work of a young man striving hard to make an impression but by and large falling short.

Neither of the opening themes has much character and sound like Brahms on an off day. The Scherzo is even more bombastic while its trio has a pallid melody that lacks definition. The Andante might have been written by Schumann, but with a whiff of the salon about it. The finale uses motifs in a series of sequences that are ultimately repetitious. In short, not exactly vintage Strauss.

Daniel Lebhardt, no doubt in an effort to ‘help’ the music, brought considerable aggression to the piano role; too many of his fortes were fortissimo or louder. It put the strings at a disadvantage, although they – Charlotte Scott, Meghan Cassidy and Alice Neary – dug in and answered as best they could. There was a brief oasis of calm near the end, but otherwise it was a harum-scarum affair, good to hear once, but no more than that.

Bartók’s youth was altogether more disciplined, on the evidence of his Piano Quintet in C,
composed at the age of 23. Here there were genuine precursors of his mature style, with strongly Hungarian flavours throughout.

The richly Romantic opening contrasts a lovely viola melody – played here by Timothy Ridout – with a nervy, urgent dance, which returns even more balletically in the coda.
An ethnic-sounding Scherzo is paired with a Viennese-style trio, before the menacing opening of a slow movement that turns quite lush and ends with strings muted.

The finale, following immediately, starts in folk-dance style very slowly, gathering pace wittily. There are some spaces for ruminative solos, but eventually a fugal finale boils up from the piano – crisply delivered by Katya Apekisheva, on peerless form at this festival.

But all the players deserve praise for their devotion to a work not often heard: violinists Maria Włoszczowska and Vicky Sayles and cellist Jamie Walton, along with Ridout and
Apekisheva as mentioned. Their teamwork was exceptional.

The following evening’s Through War heralded an English programme that required the services of tenor James Gilchrist and a dozen players. The undoubted highlight was Gilchrist in On Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams’s evocative setting of six poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, with piano quintet accompaniment.

What really made this performance special was his recitation of the poems in advance, loaded with emotional nuance. It made one appreciate even more the composer’s
special feel for the English language, its intonation and rhythm.

As always, Gilchrist brought intensity to every phrase, delving well below the surface of the
poetry. His contrast between living and dead voices in Is My Team Ploughing? reached a spine-chilling conclusion on “whose”.

His change of tone in Bredon Hill was telling. But he was matched every step of the way by the strings, whose orchestral sweep extended from the opening tremolos – “On Wenlock
Edge the wood’s in trouble” – to the muted ending of Clun. Alasdair Beatson’s piano rippled
effectively, while underlining accents. They all got carried away at the top of Bredon Hill, where Gilchrist was briefly submerged. But it was a memorable account.

We had opened with York Bowen’s Clarinet Sonata, with Matthew Hunt dancing light-footedly through the roulades of the title role and Beatson’s piano in tight support. Hunt later cleverly blended his virtuoso instincts into the ensemble in Howells’s Rhapsodic Quintet, where he was joined by a passionate string quartet led by Charlotte Scott.

The tension of the opening slowly dissipated into a lyrical mood that led coolly to a lovely conclusion. The score sounded freshly-minted, beautifully integrated – and thoroughly English.

The Jubilee Quartet, with David Adams bravely stepping into their injured leader’s shows,
revealed its versatility in Elgar’s String Quartet. Adams is widely experienced, currently concertmaster with the orchestra of Welsh National Opera and incidentally husband of the cellist Alice Neary (who played in the Howells).

Nevertheless, the voices took time to settle in an opening that was more calculated than spontaneous. Adams really found his wings in the central movement, guiding his charges
into a nicely controlled ending. Then the quartet reached persuasive heights in a finale that was both rhythmically alert and bouncing with energy. The best had been kept to last.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on La Belle Époque, North York Moors Chamber Music Festival, 10/8/2021

Mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley: “Played her part superbly too, setting the fin de siècle tone”. Picture: Kaupo Kikkas

North York Moors Chamber Music Festival: La Belle Époque, Welburn Manor Marquee, August 10

NO fewer than 11 different musicians took part in what was essentially a song-recital by mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley, devoted to ‘mélodies’ – the French answer to the German Lied – whose heyday was that prosperous period of roughly 35 years up until the First World War.

Among the composers, we enjoyed a fascinating handful of lesser lights jostling with the likes of Debussy, Ravel and Chausson.

Huntley certainly knew her way around this repertory. When singing with piano accompaniment – provided by the keenly attentive James Baillieu – she quite properly used no score. She found pathos at the centre of Duparc’s L’invitation au voyage and sustained a lovely line against Baillieu’s rippling piano. Paladilhe’s Psyché made a pleasing miniature with the voice in a largely secondary role.

Her account of Debussy’s Trois chansons de Bilitis – who was supposedly an ancient Greek poetess but was in reality a fiction created by Pierre Louÿs and fooling many classicists – was equally fluent.

The semi-recitative of ‘La flute de Pan’ and the rueful reminiscence of ‘La chevelure’ was countered by more forceful momentum in ‘Le tombeau de Naïades’. Later we had shapely Chaminade, and Viardot’s Havanaise in operetta style, with Baillieu injecting witty habanera rhythms.

Violinist Benjamin Baker: “Breath-taking finale, barely off the plane from New York”

But the real treats came when she had an ensemble at her side. In Chausson’s Chanson perpetuelle, violin and viola sweetly in turn echoed the vocal line and the full piano quintet helped generate considerable intensity.

Even more of a pleasure was the chance to hear Ravel’s Chansons madécasses with the flute of Claire Wickes (doubling on piccolo), alongside Jamie Walton’s cello and Daniel Lebhardt’s piano. Here was intriguing scene-painting, impressionism with exotic ethnic tints. This group was notably well-knit.

A breath-taking finale came with violinist Benjamin Baker, barely off the plane from New York, in the concertante role in Chausson’s Poème, Op 25. The early elegiac mood turned gradually more upbeat, as Baker’s soaring cantilenas and dizzying arpeggios built towards a protracted final cadence that turned from minor to major at the last gasp. A quintet, led from the piano by Katya Apekisheva, lent energetic support. Another festival gem. But Huntley had played her part superbly too, setting the fin de siècle tone.

Review by Martin Dreyer