Saturday, 27 September 2014

Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

Navarra Quartet
Navarra Quartet
Stravinsky, Korngold, Schubert; Aronowitz Ensemble, Navarra Quartet; Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 26 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Familiar and unfamiliar repertoire in vibrant performances from young players

The Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival opened on Thursday 25 September with a concert from the Sixteen and cellist Guy Johnston (artistic director of the festival), but the concert of chamber music proper was on Friday 26 September 2014 when the Navarra Quartet, members of Johnston's Aronowitz Ensemble, Hugo Ticciati, Goran Frost and Adi Tal gave us a programme of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Sextet Op.10 and Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet. All played in the attractive acoustic of the Old Hall at Hatfield House.

Aronowitz Ensemble
Aronowitz Ensemble
The first half of the concert was originally meant to be performed by Johnston's Aronowitz Ensemble, but pregnancy in two members meant that they were joined by Hugo Ticciati (violin), Goran Frost (viola) and Adi Tal (cello). Ticciati, Frost, Tal, and Tom Hankey opened proceedings with Igor Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet. Written in 1914 as a relaxation from working on the big ballets for Diaghilev, they started out as music for piano duet (as did the ballets), and were later orchestrated. Each movement is highly coloured and characteristic, and very dissonant. The first movement started with drone on the viola (a minor ninth, C sharp and D) over which we had Stravinsky in demented folk-music mode; a Russian folk tale vividly re-created and vibrantly played with wonderful attack. The middle movement was inspired by the music hall artiste Little Tich (famous for his Big-Boot Dance performed in boots with 28 inch long soles!). This is less unlikely than it might see as each time Diaghilev and Nijinsky visited London they went to see Little Tich. Stravinsky's music was made of disconcerting fragments, sliding glissandi, pizzicato and outbursts of violence which the players welded into an evocative whole. The final movement was an exploration of quiet, with hushed intense chords. Dissonant yes, but richly expressive with Stravinsky exploring harmony rather than melody. It received an austere and wonderfully intense performance.

The second piece in the programme was written just a year after the Stravinsky but could not have been more different. Korngold's Sextet Op.10 for Strings was written in 1915 when Korngold was just 17. He was very much a prodigy, studying in Vienna with such teachers as Zemlinsky, and his music from this period his highly reminiscent of that of his contemporaries such as Strauss and Schoenberg. The lyrical voice of the later Hollywood composer is present, but within complex textures and a certain austerity. Whilst many moments in the sextet evoked Richard Strauss for me, Korngold never really luxuriates the way Strauss does and his writing had edgier moments.

The sextet is for pairs of violins, violas and cellos, played by Nadia Wijzenbeek, Hugo Ticciati, Tom Hankey, Goran Frost, Guy Johnston and Adi Tal. The instrumentation with its two violas and only two violins gives the piece a lovely richness in the middle of the texture. The opening movement was in sonata form, but Korngold's complex take on it with a restless, constantly varying pulse. It was full of melody and the players made it seethe with lyrical passion. Lines were beautifully sung, and wove in an out of each other, with Korngold's rich melodies embedded a complex texture.  The result was positively orchestral at times. The slower movement, Adagio, was quieter and more intense with a lovely melody for the first violin which wandered harmonically. The movement reminded me of Strauss in the way it was beautiful but ached painfully too.  The third movement seemed disjointed at first, but settled into a delightful waltz. Even here, Korngold had his fun. It is actually notated in 6/8 and there are even bars of 7/8, but the players made the result swing and swoop delightfully. Finally the Finale, marked as fast as possible! And oh boy, did they take it at quite a lick.A fast and furious performance, which also seemed to have a sense of underlying narrative, hints perhaps of Korngold the film and theatre composer coming out.

After the interval the members of the Navarra Quartet, Magnus Johnston, Simone van der Giessen, Marije Johnston and Brian O'Kane, performed Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, Death and the Maiden D.810. Schubert wrote the work in 1824 when we had started to suffer from what was his final illness. But in all likelihood the subject of the quartet was not Death at all, he probably chose the song as the basis for the variations in the second movement on musical grounds and it would not have been well known to contemporary listeners.

The opening Allegro was given a very intent and vital performance. This was a concentrated performance, but with vibrancy in the big moments. The group pushed the intensity at all times, the drama was emphatic and the lyric was very lyrical, it was a performance of contrasts in extremes of light and shade, hard and soft. Vibrant and intense, but perhaps a little too hard pressed. The variations in the slow movement started with a poised and relaxed account of the main theme, and the variations themselves were highly characterised with a strong violin solo, a lovely singing cello and some hard edged rhythmic moments, all leading to a thrillingly vibrant final variation. The third movement brought back the sense of contrast, between intensely concentrated moments and more lyrical ones, but all crisply rhythmic. The final tarantello is marked Presto and the players certainly showed what they could to. It was a taken as one long bravura sweep, full of intense energy and vibrancy. Throughout the four players combined intense technical poise with a strong feeling of interaction, you felt that they had been playing this forever but it never became routine. The performance was a little too driven, a little too hard pressed for my taste and I would have like a little more warmth and relaxation, but there is not doubt of the thrilling vibrancy and bravura of those closing pages.

The festival continues throughout this weekend. Ruby Hughes is singing tonight along with Samuel West in Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon. There is a lunchtime concert tomorrow from young people from the area, and the finale tomorrow evening includes Strauss's Metamorphosen and Haydn's Nelson Mass.

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