Contributed by Martin Widden
WATER, MYTHS AND CHANGE AT THE PRIORY
The first concert from Lancaster Arts to take place in 2021 with a live audience was held in Lancaster Priory on Saturday 5 June, with full social distancing in place. This meant of course that audience numbers had to be reduced, but it in no way detracted from the enthusiastic response from the audience for the music played by Michal Rogalski (oboe) and Petr Limonov (piano).
The first part of the concert addressed the theme of the series The Water Season, through works by Benjamin Britten and Robert Schumann: pieces from Britten’s Metamorphoses after Ovid were interspersed with three Schumann Romances, not specifically about water, but full of emotions such as might be inspired by the ever-changing nature of streams and rivers. The four pieces by Britten, dealing with the changes wrought in humans after interaction with gods, covered the myths of Narcissus, who wasted away into death through excessive admiration of his own beauty reflected in a pool of water and was transformed into a flower; Phaeton who drove the chariot of the sun too close to the earth and was thrown by a thunderbolt from Zeus into the river Padus; Syrinx who in trying to escape from the unwanted attentions of Pan was changed into a marsh reed, from which Pan made the first pipe; and Arethusa who, again resisting advances from an immortal, was turned into a stream.
The Britten pieces were linked by readings by Jocelyn Cunningham, Director of Lancaster Arts, from the Ovid Metamorphoses myths. This narrative helped to illuminate the music, played sometimes solo on the oboe, and sometimes in duet with the piano.
The second half of the concert comprised solo piano pieces by Rachmaninov and Debussy: all of them virtuoso pieces, they were played with great skill by Petr Limonov. Despite the technical demands of the music, he nonetheless conveyed brilliantly Debussy’s interpretation for the piano of the idea of reflections in the surface of still water. The recital closed with a performance of Debussy’s l’Isle Joyeuse. Inspired by Watteau’s painting l’embarquement de Cythere, this piece describes in music a group of revellers leaving the mythical island of Cythera, including the sound of the swell moving their boat. Once again, the pianist Petr Limonov played this excellently.
It was very good to hear this music played live. Zoom is a wonderful thing, but no amount of technical expertise has been able to replace the emotional force of a live performance such as this.
TWO CONTRASTING CONCERTS
Opening the 2021-22 International Series of concerts in the Great Hall were two very different performances.
‘Voice of the Whale’ was the title of the first concert, given on 23 September by four members of the Manchester Collective. To avoid the risk of covid infection being transmitted, there was no printed programme. Members of the audience could read the programme in advance from the concerts website, or bring their smartphones with them; if however they had printed the programme off at home, they may have had some difficulty reading it, for the Hall was dimly lit, and some audience members will have had to take it home and read it afterwards.
The Hall had been laid out with small tables, well spaced apart, with a small vase of flowers on each table; recorded music was playing as the audience arrived and took their seats. It all looked and felt quite festive. The first item on the programme was High and Low, an improvisatory piano solo by Molly Joyce, very skilfully played. This was followed by two pieces, Curved Form and In Beautiful May, for cello and violin augmented by some recorded music. The first consisted of a gradual crescendo of a chord, rising to a climax, then gradually dying away to nothing: pleasant to listen to, but without detectable rhythm. The second included snatches of a rather fine recorded voice singing Lieder, whilst the violinist continued to play and also to sing – quite a tour de force. The final piece of the programme was Vox Balaenae, composed by the American composer George Crumb. This made use of some unconventional sounds: solo flute played whilst the player sang through the instrument, piano right at the bottom of its range where the pitch of the note was almost impossible to discern, twanging on the strings of the piano, and so on.
All this made for an interesting evening, although it could take more than one airing for the music to be fully appreciated.
The programme for the second concert, performed on 28 September by the Brodsky String Quartet, consisted of three substantial works, but only the last of them might be considered conventional fare for a Great Hall concert.
It opened with an arrangement for string quartet (by Paul Cassidy, the viola player of the Brodskys) of the sonata in C for solo violin by J S Bach. One might think ‘hold on, how can a sonata for solo violin be arranged for the four instruments of a string quartet?’, but this would be to fail to appreciate the power and depth of Bach’s capacity as a composer. In places he uses all four strings of the violin to provide harmony – no doubt this is very demanding on the violin soloist – and at other times the harmony is very clearly implied. Evidently Paul Cassidy is a Bach enthusiast. His arrangement of the sonata is a remarkable achievement that made a very satisfying piece of music for string quartet.
The second piece was the string quartet no 3 by Benjamin Britten. Probably few members of the audience will have been familiar with this piece, but to this reviewer it seemed very convincing. The Brodsky Quartet had clearly spent a good deal of time learning the piece, and their performance of it was excellent.
The final item in the concert was the string quartet in D minor by Schubert, often called the Death and the Maiden quartet because the slow movement is a set of variations on Schubert’s own song of that title. This is a dramatic piece in which a young girl is enticed by the calm embrace of death: Schubert was already seriously ill and aware that he was likely to die soon, which very probably explains why the composer was attracted to the poem. Occupying some forty minutes, the string quartet he composed on this theme is a dramatic piece, all in minor keys, and is recognised to be one of the pillars of the string quartet repertoire. This rounded off an excellent concert.