Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Kings Place Festival: Borodin, Tchaikovsky... and Timber

The Brodsky Quartet - photo credit: Eric Richmond
The Brodsky Quartet
photo credit: Eric Richmond
Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Michael Gordon; Brodsky Quartet, percussionists from the Aurora Orchestra and Royal College of Music; Kings Place Festival
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Sep 14 2014
Contrasting pair of concerts with Russian chamber music and Michael Gordon's percussion work on wood

The Kings Place Festival – now in its 7th year has been a riot of success, showcasing 77 acts and including more than 200 performers (for other reviews Different Trains, Classical Works, Folk Roots, and THe Night Shift). Last night, while others were listening to Steve Reich's 'Different Trains', I went to see the Brodsky Quartet play some Russian Romance by Borodin and Tchaikovsky. For a complete contrast I later saw Michael Gordon's (1956) 'Timber' for six simantras performed by percussionists from the Aurora Orchestra and the Royal College of Music – about as far from Romantic as you can get.

The Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland and Ian Belton on violin, Paul Cassidy on viola, and Jacqueline Thomas on cello) started the concert with 'Scherzo in D from Les Vendredis' (1882) by Alexander Borodin (1833 - 1887). Borodin was a chemist as well as a composer and was a supporter of women's rights - helping to found a School of Medicine for women in St Petersburg. He is known as one the of 'the Five', along with Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who, from the mid 1850's, forged a new, nationalistic style of Russian art music. Only Balakirev had had any kind of formal musical training but all were enthusiastic about progressive European composers such as Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Berlioz. Borodin in particular struggled to find time to write, leaving many compositions unfinished.

'Les Vendredis' was a set of 16 string quartets by several composers published by Mitrofan Petrovich Belyayev in1899 and included, amongst others, Aleksandr Glazunov, Nikolay Artsybushev, Nikolay Alexandrovich Sokolov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

In keeping with the ethos of the Five this 'Scherzo' had a distinctly Russian flavour from its delightful folk tune with a 5/8 rhythm and the interrupting sonorous traditional dance-like segments. Tripping along nicely to an apparent big finish, there was a brief pause before the light-hearted dreamy summer's day of a quieter slow section. But this in turn was interrupted with an upwards scale and chords to a faster reprise of the first section. The components of this final section seemed shorter than the first time round, and with more embellishing brightwork. This time, however, there was no doubt of the finish. At only 10 minutes or so long, this little Scherzo packs a lot in.

In contrast Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's (1840 - 1893) was steeped in learning and professionalism. He studied at the St Petersburg conservatoire, was one of the first students at the Moscow conservatoire, and was able to earn a living solely from music. 'String Quartet No. 3 Op.3' (1875) was written at about the same time as the Borodin and it was a lovely piece of programming to put them together – the infectious outpouring of the Borodin against the slicker and more symphonic Tchaikovsky.

The Brodsky Quartet are a group that gets to the heart of a piece of music – every strand and sinew of the Tchaikovsky was made plain. The sad song led by the first violin in the 'Andante sostenuto -Allegro moderato' was passed around the instruments before the addition of a second idea and variations. Emotions of loss worked up through the Allegro to crashing waves of passion and led to a calmer minor section and a recurrence of the first tune.

The second movement 'Allegretto vivo e scherzando' with its gimmicky refrain was fast and bright and the 'Andante funebre e doloroso', a funeral march written for his friend the violinist Ferdinand Laub, was poignant with long held chords and muted suspensions over which peeped a tune highlighted by pizzicato scales. These led into more chords and suspensions with a rhythmic element added by the second violin before a lyrical section into which crept the earlier chords as an accompaniment before they finally reasserted themselves to end the movement.

The 'Finale – Allegro non troppo e risoluto' was more cheerful. Here fast and light dances for all led to a general pause followed by a pizzicato fade to pianissimo and a falling cello line before a furiously fast run to the final chords.

The Brodsky Quartet have been going for 40 years ... this is not quite long enough for one Brodsky accolade – Tchaikovsky's 'String Quartet No. 3 was played by the original Brodsky Quartet (named after their Russian violinist Adolf Brodsky who later became the leader of the Halle Orchestra and Principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music) for Tchaikovsky himself. Nevertheless I am sure that both Tchaikovsky and Brodsky was be happy with the tradition that the current quartet are continuing.

Timber. Photo credit: John Harte
Timber - Photo credit: John Harte
American Michael Gordon was one of the founders of Bang on a Can which has its own festival as well as commissioning new works and teaching and supporting new composers and performers (including the Bang on a Can All Stars). Timber (2009) was written as a commission for the Dutch-based dance group, Club Guy & Roni, and the percussion ensembles Slagwerk Den Haag and Mantra Percussion. From the programme notes Gordon supplied for this piece he wanted to write something that was free from pitch and orchestration, and instead focussed on non-pitched percussion, with each performer utilising only one instrument.

After some experimentation with rhythms, but while still waiting to find the right sound, Fedor Teunisse from Slagwerk suggested the simantra. The resonance and different sounds (high or low depending on length, and different timbre depending on where along their length they are struck) of this set of instruments provided Gordon with just the effect he was looking for. The instruments used tonight were built from pine by Henry Baldwin, the principal percussionist of Aurora Orchestra.

This performance of 'Timber' used six performers, one per simantra of length 44 to 75 inches. The first of the three sections had waves of semiquavers resulting in an eerie, shamanistic sound. The second section, after a brief pause, was more rhythmically complex, with 12 being played against 15, or 18, 16,18,21 or 24 beats in a bar, but the effect was even more elemental and primal. The final section with a steady crotchet beat from each performer's right hand played against various cross-rhythms from their left set the room ringing as though you were inside some giant church bell.

The performers have a great deal to be proud of. It's not an easy thing to keep that level of concentration for almost an hour and to give such a piece of music its own life force. Gordon felt that for him the music was like 'a trip out into the desert'. The epitome of minimalism 'Timber' lets the audience float away into their own journey of exploration - a fitting finale to this year's Kings Place Festival.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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