Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Vivid and passionate: chamber music in Highgate

Ernst von Dohnányi
Ernst von Dohnányi
Beethoven, Britten, Ludwig, Dohnanyi; Highgate International Chamber Music Festival; St Michael's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Two highly contrasting mid-20th century works in a vividly passionate programme

The Highgate International Chamber Music Festival is in its 8th year. Founded in 2012 by artistic directors Natalie Klouda, Irina Botan and Ashok Klouda, this year the festival is presenting 14 concerts over a week from 23 to 30 November, often with an early evening and late night concert in addition to main concert. And whilst the concerts do feature well-known artists (the opening event featured cellist Sheku Kanneh Mason, and the closing one includes oboist Nicholas Daniel), the emphasis is on a pool of artists, including the joint artistic directors themselves, who play at many of the events thus enabling concerts to be interestingly varied. And providing regular concert goers with the chance to get to know particular performers.

We went along to the concert on Tuesday 26 November 2019, at St Michael's Church, South Grove, when the programme featured Beethoven's Clarinet Trio in B flat, Op.11, Britten's String Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 25, David Ludwig's Three Yiddish Dances for piano trio and Ernst von Dohnanyi's Sextet in C Op.37, performed by Benjamin Gilmore and Natalie Klouda (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola), Robert Cohen and Ashok Klouda (cello), Julian Bliss (clarinet), James Pillai (horn) and Simon Callaghan (piano).

The concert had been preceded by an early evening concert in which the festival's young artists, the Salome Quartet, played Beethoven's Rasumovsky Quartet, and after the main concert there was a candlelight concert in which Ashok Klouda played Natalie Klouda's Solo Cello Suite written for baroque cello. The concert was certainly well-supported, with many of the audience members seeming to be local, and you got the impression that quite a few people were planning to attend all three concerts that evening The church itself is an attractive early 19th century building (1832), with a memorial to the composer Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who worshipped at the church), and whilst church buildings are not always ideal for chamber music it proved to have fine acoustics, and there was mulled wine for sale at the back to take away the chill of the weather.

We started with Beethoven's Clarinet Trio, played by Julian Bliss, Ashok Klouda and Simon Callaghan. This was written following his first set of early piano trios, and though the work was intended for clarinet, cello and piano, Beethoven wrote it so that violin could play it as well. But the contrast in timbres and textures makes the version with clarinet appealing. The overall style is Mozartian, but you could hear Beethoven pushing the envelope, being generous with his thematic material and taking quite a robust view of classical form. The opening Allegro con brio gave plenty for the cello to do, showcasing the way Beethoven made the cello independent of the piano's left hand, which had been standard in cello writing. The Adagio opened with a soulful melody on cello, which Beethoven proceeds to explore it in a highly expressive manner, and the trio was completed with a perky theme and variations full of wit and with some unconventional moments.

Britten's writing for string quartet effectively spans his creative life. The early Three Divertiment date from the composer's early 20s whilst the String quartet No. 1 was written in 1941 when the composer was 28 and living in the USA. Britten would write a second quartet in 1945, and then only return to the medium in 1976, the final year of his life, when his String quartet no. 3 would be his last completed major work.

String quartet No. 1 is dedicated to Mrs Elizabeth Coolidge, the American patron who did so much to promote contemporary music in the 20th century. It is a tense and restless work, full of fearsome energy but also strong contrasts. We heard it played by Benjamin Gilmore, Natalie Klouda, Guy Pomeroy and Ashok Klouda, and throughout the four played the work with a unanimity and intensity as if they had been doing it together all their lives. The remarkable opening of the first movement, with its evocative high chords contrasting with the cello pizzicato was very striking and intense, a sound which was characteristically Britten and which would return in some of the writing in his opera Peter Grimes. This contrasted with passages of vivid, almost vicious energy. The second movement was similarly full of contrasts, quiet staccatos with high energy outbursts, and was played with a remarkable combination of concentration and verve. As might be expected from the young Britten, the quartet is full of brilliant writing for the strings. Whilst the third movement was gentler, it was certainly not relaxed, and the eerie violin solo made a strong impression, creating the idea of icy wastes (which is remarkable given that the quartet was written in California!). The finale was again full of contrasts and character, with a terrific sense of communal energy.

This was a superb and highly involving performance of the work, and it made you long to hear the same group playing Britten's other two major string quartets. Perhaps next year!

After the interval we started with David Ludwig's Three Yiddish Dances performed by Benjamin GIlmore, Robert Cohen and Simon Callaghan. Ludwig (born 1974) comes from a distinguished musical dynasty, his uncle is pianist Peter Serkin, his grandfather was the pianist Rudolf Serkin and his great-grandfather was the violinist Adolf Busch. The three dances each had names, 'Crooked Dance', 'Slow Hora', 'Bulgar' but were anything but purely picturesque. The first movement was full of rhythmic energy with hints of Astor Piazzolla, whilst the second was based around a hauntingly soulful Yiddish melody. Whilst the final movement, full of lively energy, was great fun.

The concert finished with Ernst von Dohnanyi's Sextet in C, performed by Benjamin Gilmore, Guy Pomeroy, Robert Cohen, Simon Callaghan, Julian Bliss and James Pillai. Dohnanyi was a Hungarian composer, a younger contemporary of Bartok, but one who identified with the Austrian elite rather than the native Hungarian music. His Sextet was written in 1935 and whilst it is conservative, with plenty of hints of Brahmsian late-Romanticism, it also had a very distinct personality. It is a highly restless work, with Dohnanyi exploiting to the maximum the potential for different combinations of timbres in his instruments, and constantly moving his material on, so that the piece seems to have a profusion of ideas and never quite stop to explore one in detail.

The opening Allegro appasionato plunged straight in with vigorous string crossing from the cello, this was definitely a Brahms-influenced late Romantic world, even more so when this introduction moved on to the flowing main movement. Yet there was also hints of Richard Strauss in the writing, and throughout the players gave it a really full-blooded performance. The slow movement Intermezzo featured long lyrical passages interrupted by piano arpeggios, and yet there was also space for a highly dramatic middle section. The third movement theme and variations stretched the form to the limit, with Dohnanyi making his folk-inspired main theme really work. There was an engaging lyricism here, but also rhythmic energy and the movement plunged straight on to the Finale with its hints of contemporary popular music, including a demented waltz and some jazzily rhythmic passages. Dohnanyi also brought back material from the first movement, so the work ended with a strange but engaging melange. This was a vividly passionate performance from all concerned, and it seemed as if the players were really enjoying themselves.

The festival continues until Saturday, and delights to come include Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence, Robert Cohen and Irina Botan in Brahms' second Cello Sonata, Coleridge-Taylor's Nonet, Clara Schumann's Piano Trio, Finzi's Interlude for oboe and strings, and Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet, as well as plenty of Beethoven in celebration of the composer's 249th birthday.

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