Sunday 1 October 2017

From Michael Haydn & Schubert to Alec Roth & Thomas Ades: a double helping at Hatfield House

Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival: Guy Johnston and the Endellion String Quartet in the Marble Hall (Photo Rose Cecil)
Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival: Guy Johnston and the Endellion String Quartet
in the Marble Hall (Photo Rose Cecil)
Michael Haydn, RVW, Alec Roth, Haydn, Thomas Ades, Schubert; James Gilchrist, Chi-Chi Nwanoku, Nicholas Daniel,Navarra Quartet, Endellion String Quartet, Guy Johnson; Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 29 2017 Star rating: 4.0
Chamber music ancient and modern, familiar and unfamiliar, in pair of imaginative programmes

Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival: James Gilchrist, Nicholas Daniel in the Marble Hall (Photo Rose Cecil)
James Gilchrist, Nicholas Daniel in the Marble Hall (Photo Rose Cecil)
The sixth Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival has been running from 28 September with the final performances on 1 October 2017. I went along on Friday 30 September to catch a pair of concerts in the Marble Hall of Hatfield House, a grand but sympathetic venue for chamber music. At 5pm the Navarra String Quartet was joined by Nicholas Daniel (oboe), James Gilchrist (tenor), and Chi-Chi Nwanoku (double bass) for what was billed as Michael Haydn's Quartet for oboe, violin, cello and bass MH600, RVW's Ten Blake Songs and Alex Roth's Seven Elements. Then at 8pm, the artistic director of the festival Guy Johnston (cello) joined the Endellion String Quartet for Haydn's String Quartet Op.54 No. 1 in G major Hob.III:58, Thomas Ades' Arcadiana and Schubert's String Quintet in C op.163 D.956

In fact, the Michael Haydn  seems to be for cor anglais (and that what the instrument Nicholas Daniel played). It proved a rather delightful work, it was performed by Magnus Johnston (violin), Nicholas Daniel (cor anglais), Brian O'Kane (cello) and Chi-Chi Nwanoku (double bass). With the double bass providing continuo (ie. that rather boring bass line), Michael Haydn was free to use to the cello as more of a tenor instrument, whilst the cor anglais varied between functioning as a second violin or functioning as a solo, and sometimes it seemed as if using the cor anglais gave the part some over prominence. Overall though, it was a work full of delight and imagination. The first movement was full bouncy charm, with some intriguing combinations of instrument. The slow movement rather spotlit the cor anglais, with a lovely singing melody, whilsst the final movement was good humoured with some lively solos for cello and for cor anglais. A work full of charm and far more interesting and imaginative than might have been thought.

RVW's Ten Blake Songs for tenor and oboe were performed by Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and James Gilchrist (tenor). The ten songs set a variety of Blake poems, and were originally done for a film about William Blake; I believe the selection of the poems was the film director's rather than RVW's and he famously had trouble with 'The Lamb'. RVW sets eight of the poems for tenor and oboe, and has two unaccompanied.

The mood is generally elegiac with a touch of melancholy, and throughout the performance I was constantly struck by how the two very different timbres combined and commented on each other. Nicholas Daniel's oboe seemed not to accompany James Gilchrist, but to weave a separate line making its own complementary statements, and sometimes contrasting with the emotional tenor of the narrative. Gilchrist is a very immediate sort of singer, he communicates with his whole body, projecting the text and music. His tone was rather confiding than brilliant, and he really made the words count. We had the printed texts, but certainly did not need it.In a song like London (sung unaccompanied), he even bent the notes a little for expressive purposes.

Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival: Chi-Chi Nwanoku in the Marble Hall (Photo Rose Cecil)
Chi-Chi Nwanoku in the Marble Hall (Photo Rose Cecil)
The final work in the programme was Alec Roth's Seven Elements, performed by James Gilchrist and the Navarra String Quartet (Magnus and Marije Johnston, Simone van der Giessen, Brian O'Kane). A setting of seven poems by Vikram Seth which Roth originally wrote for James Gilchrist in 2009, each movement deals with a particular element, Earth, Air, Wood, Fire, Metal, Water and Space, with Seth's words varying as to how he dealt with that element. Roth's settings were very much lyrical, often using a sort of free arioso complemented by imaginative timbres from the string quartet.

Earth combined a folk-ish dance for cello and viola, with the rather freer vocal line. Air alternated between delicate texture for just two violins, and a joyful dancing sense whilst accompanying the voice. This sense of alternation between instrumental (sometimes with vocalise) and instruments accompanying the voice was one which cropped up in a number of the songs. Wood had a lyrical viola line at its centre, and was rather evocative and not a little disquieting. Fire was curious. Seth's poem uses the words 'Fa-yaah' and 'Dizayaah', perhaps as a comment on popular culture. Roth's setting was undoubtedly full of excitement, and Gilchrist was mesmerising in the way he gave the performance his all. But for all the engaging quality, I was not sure what was trying to be achieved. Metal used spare sounds which evoked the metallic, with a waltz appearing between the verses! Water was the longest poem, engaging and evocative, it had lyrically appealing melody over rhythmic motifs in the instruments sometimes creating highly tricky textures. Finally Space used calm and considered chords, moving towards atmospheric and light scoring with a final unresolved cadence. Gilchrist gave a deeply committed and thoughtful performance, and was supported by magical sounds from the quartet, and the cycle was very well received by the audience.

Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival: Guy Johnston and the Endellion String Quartet in the Marble Hall (Photo Rose Cecil)
Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival: Guy Johnston and the Endellion String Quartet in the Marble Hall (Photo Rose Cecil)       
The evening concert began with the Endellion Quartet performing String Quartet Op.54 No. 1 in G major Hob.III:58. This started with an engaging and energetic movement, and we noticed from the beginning the quartet's very refined sound quality. At times the energy veered towards the more intense and driven. The graceful slow movement, featured a sweet-tone violin over throbbing accompaniment. The third movement was a robust dance with a stylish cello moment in the trio. Finally we had a crisply busy movement where Haydn exercised his humour by having the momentum pause at key moments, along with an end where everything evaporated wittily.

Thomas Ades' Arcadiana was commissioned by the Endellion String Quartet and premiered in 1994. It is a sequence of seven movements each evoking a different vanished Arcadian idyll. Venezia notturno was a barcarolle with atmospherics surrounding a barcarolle rhythm. Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schon combined further atmospherics with a complex and dynamic texture intended to evoke Mozart's Kingdom of the Night. Auf dem wasser zu singen mixed pizzicato with lyrical strings including glissandi to create a very distinct atmosphere. The fourth movement evoked Poussin's tomb with its inscription 'Even in Arcady am I', strong and highly coloured, with an intense and complex texture. L'Embarquement (presumably for Cythera) was fragile, delicate and mysterious, with the viola to the fore. O Albion was slow, intense and sustained, whilst Lethe was a delicate web with an aching violin solo. I enjoyed the piece, but then I have heard it before (on disc, from the Calder Quartet, see my review). Hearing it live, in this context, I was also conscious of how the young Ades (22 when he wrote it in 1993) was perhaps being a bit too clever at times, and showing off, and certainly the work did not immediately speak to the audience in the way that the Roth did. But there is no doubt that the Endellion String Quartet have his complex and magical textures at their fingertips.

The final work in the programme was probably the moment for which the packed audience was waiting, when Guy Johnston joined the Endellion Quartet (Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza, Garfield Jackson, David Waterman) for Schubert's late String quintet. The opening movement again showcased the refined tone from the players, with crisp detail, clarity of line and soulful sense of the sung melodies. The lovely second subject with its magical cello duet was light and refined rather than big and romantic. The development was strong and big boned, with some terrific climaxes, and the coda after the recapitulation ended on a highly coloured moment. The refined second movement, showed the players exercising control of texture, combining clarity with elegance and intensity, all contrasting with the vigorous trio. The third movement was vigorous with a rich sound, yet full of excitement and the slow trio section was very refined yet no less intense. Finally a robust finale, but with some refined episodes, and a conclusion that perhaps might have been bit of a scramble but was undoubtedly exciting.

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