Monday 3 July 2023

Mendelssohn, Schumann and a Noah Max premiere: Emma Abbate & the Tippett Quartet at the Thaxted Festival

The North Porch, Thaxted Parish Church
The North Porch, Thaxted Parish Church

Mendelssohn, Noah Max, Holst, Schumann; Emma Abbate, Tippett Quartet; Thaxted Festival
Reviewed 1 July 2023

A programme that contrasted the classicism of the early Romantics with the premiere of Noah Max's highly visual quartet, along with a short work by the festival's founder

The Thaxted Festival is in full swing, presenting concerts in Thaxted's glorious Parish Church (built 1340-1510). The festival can trace its origins to 1916 when Gustav Holst moved to the village and started a Whitsuntide Festival. 

On Saturday 1 July 2023, the Tippett Quartet, John Mills, Jeremy Isaac, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, and Bozidar Vukotic, performed a programme of Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 1, Op. 12 in E flat, the premiere of Noah Max's Quartet No. 2, Gustav Holst's Phantasy Quartet on British Folksongs, Op. 36 and Schumann's Piano Quintet with Emma Abbate.

Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 1 might date from Mendelssohn's 20th year (1829) but by then he was a seasoned composer. The young Mendelssohn extensively studied Beethoven's quartets and this quartet is inspired by Beethoven's Harp Quartet, Op. 74. The first movement began with a graceful slow introduction, very inflected by Beethoven, and played with a lovely unanimity of phrasing. The fluid Allegro had a rather classical outline, full of shapely phrasing but the music was very focused on the first violin line, played with a singing tone by John Mills. The Canzonetta was delightful, all light textures with a middle section reminiscent of Mendelssohn's fairies on speed. The expressive Andante featured rich tone from all four players, but the music still focused on the passionate first violin line. The finale was, at first, all vivid energy but reminiscences of the opening movement led to the quartet's intriguingly downbeat ending.

Noah Max's Quartet No. 2 was inspired by works of visual art. In three contrasting movements, Max describes it as like a Medieval triptych with inspirations ranging from paintings by Joan Miro and Piet Mondrian to sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Whether this knowledge is helpful to listeners is arguable, but it is always intriguing to hear about a composer's inspirations.

The first movement began with long sustained lines interrupted by episodic flurries in each line, the harmonies edgy yet with a sense of clarity, something that carried through the movement. Textures changed, becoming more mobile, then profoundly mysterious, creating a restless sense underpinned by the unease of the edgy harmonies. Throughout the players offered an intensely concentrated performance. The second movement alternated a fast scurrying with moments of quasi-stasis using instrumental harmonics, sometimes combining the two to vivid and quite unusual effect, and there was a pell-mell climax which led to an ending that seemed to have problems achieving finality. The third movement was quiet, intense and haunting (or perhaps haunted), slowly unfolding with growing intensity towards an ending that came as a surprise.

Programming concerts is a tricky affair, bringing works together yet also giving audiences (many of whom may have travelled some distance) a programme of some substance. I was not completely convinced that preceding Max's quartet by Mendelssohn's highly Beethovenian quartet provided the best setting. Perhaps beginning with Holst's Phantasy Quartet might have been better. This was written in 1916 (the year Holst began his Whitsuntide Festivals in Thaxted) and is based on four different folksongs. Opening with a melancholy solo viola, the way Holst handled the folksongs reminded me of his friend Vaughan Williams. The music lacked the acerbic element that is common to much of Holst's mature output. There was little in the way of development, Holst simply changed the mood by changing folksong. The result was engaging without being entirely memorable.

Under Beethoven, the piano trio developed into a serious form based around three equal and independent lines. Mozart did something similar with his piano quartets, but that form was slow to take off. Having written three quartets, Schumann created his Piano Quintet to pair a string quartet with his piano virtuoso wife, Clara Schumann. During the 19th-century a series of composer-pianists tended to noticeably pull the focus of piano chamber music back to the piano. Mendelssohn's piano trios, for instance, can teeter perilously close to a mini-piano concerto. There is an element of that in Schumann's Piano Quintet, but Clara Schumann wasn't that sort of bravura, virtuoso pianist, she wasn't about Lisztian display. 

There was a determined element of this to Emma Abbate's playing in the Piano Quintet; delicate, sympathetic and with beautifully shapely phrases, she did not hog the limelight and for the more solo moments the strings made way for her, all five performers know when to come forward and when to retreat, so for instance the second theme of the first movement featured a lovely viola/cello duet, discreetly accompanied by Abbate. 

Since Abbate anchored the performance in this way, the strings' passionate artistry was moulded by her poise and classical style, always with a lovely fluidity. The march in the slow movement paired deliberate, detached string playing with more lyrical piano contributions, giving it a strong atmosphere, and the middle section moved on to shimmering lyricism. The Scherzo was vividly done, tightly controlled yet full of vigour. The first trio was more relaxed whilst the second one became a dark, demented dance. The finale featured steady, yet highly characterful playing with strong rhythms. Episodes introduced more relaxed textures but the final fugue was full of vivid character.

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • Delving into her Greek background: Lisa Archontidi-Tsaldaraki's debut recital places 20th-century Greek composers alongside Bartok, Szymanowski and Ravel - interview
  • I have rarely heard Bach's Mass in B minor performed with such consistency of style, integrity and sheer musicality: Vox Luminis at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Music of such engaging variety and imagination: Richard Boothby's Music to hear... exploring Alfonso Ferrabosco's 1609 book of music for solo lyra viol - record review
  • A refreshing sense of lightness: Chichester Cathedral Choir & the Rose Consort of Viols in sacred music by Chichester Cathedral's 17th-century organist, Thomas Weelkes - record review
  • An engaging & ultimately touching evening: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas at the Grange Festival - opera review
  • Visually seductive and strikingly arrestingThe Queen of Spades at The Grange Festival is a real study in obsession - opera review
  • Adding the countertenor voice to the conversation: Iestyn Morris on recording a disc of romantic Russian song - interview
  • One of the towering masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire: violinist Simon Blendis introduces Enescu's Octet - guest article
  • Stylish performances all round: a winning account of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at The Grange Festival that engages as well as questions - opera review
  • Rückert lieder: Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake in songs by Robert & Clara Schumann, Schubert, Henze and Mahler - concert review
  • We simply forget that there was anything young artist about the evening: Hansel & Gretel at Opera Holland Park - opera review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month