Giles Swayne Masterclass with Helen Wilson (flute) and Ella Rundle (cello)

Fontanelli String Quartet [Colette Overdijk & Jian Ren (violins), Nina Poskin (viola) & Kirsten Jenson (cello)]

Anthony Brown (saxophone) & Leo Nicholson (piano)
Fontanelli String Quartet. Photograph: fontanellistringquartet.com The fourth instalment of the Park Lane Group’s New Year series introduced Giles Swayne as the “Frontline Composer” in the opening masterclass by way of two solo works into which he first offered some insights and suggestions to their respective performers. Canto for Flute (2000) is a re-casting of a work originally written for flute and chorus, which set Gertrude’s lines from Hamlet describing Ophelia’s suicide, and where the flute provided commentary in the form of a framing prologue and epilogue, and intervening antistrophes. In this solo version, the flautist has the difficult job of negotiating the different narratives as a solo. In the preliminary rehearsal Swayne suggested to Helen Wilson that she make more of the rests written into the score, and in the resulting performance these emerged with some pregnancy, clarifying the work’s structure. Together with Wilson’s technically secure handling of the contrasting violent fluttering and lyrically sustained sections, she maintained a compelling intensity across the work’s fifteen-minute stretch.
Cellist Ella Rundle might have made more of the contrasts in character between the “masculine” and “feminine” dispositions delineated in Swayne’s Suite No.1 (2007), but she certainly achieved a prevailing sense of melancholy throughout its seven movements, which bear such Greek headings as ‘Prologos’, ‘Choros’, and ‘Strophe’, which in musical form correspond closely to the dances which constitute J. S. Bach’s cello suites, even to the extent that Swayne’s invention often sound like misremembered quotations from Bach’s examples, refracted through rhythmic patterns and octatonic scales, with correspondences to Britten’s solo cello music.
Elizabeth Maconchy was the “Linked Composer” in the main concert, on account of her having been a cousin of Swayne’s mother. The Fontanelli String Quartet was originally programmed to perform her String Quartet No.5, but played the Third (1938) instead. As London audiences had recently had the chance to hear this work at one of last summer’s Proms Chamber Music concerts, it was a pity that exposure could not be given to another piece by this rather overlooked composer. Nevertheless, this was a more emotionally integrated performance of this cyclical, one-movement score, if not as charged. The joyous pizzicato strumming of double-stopped chords grew out of the energy built up from the oscillations between major and minor at the beginning. But this performance was also careful not to dispel the heady atmosphere of the opening entirely, for instance by the threatening pedal note sustained by cellist Kirsten Jenson in a contrasting faster section, somewhat in the manner which Shostakovich contrived to do in the fourth movement of his String Quartet No.8.
There followed three pieces for saxophone (alto and soprano) and piano, performed by Anthony Brown and Leo Nicholson. Ben Foskett’s Bench (2005) and Graham Ross’s Coronach (2013), the latter given its world premiere here to a PLG commission. In a little over five minutes Bench does not so much develop two contrasting musical ideas as schizophrenically alternate them, requiring very close attention and unanimity of purpose from the performers, which was thrillingly achieved here, rising to a maddening climax. Coronach is the Gaelic for crying, and refers to a (now obsolete) pagan ceremony of keening over a dead body the day before burial. Ross’s score exploits the extreme registers of the saxophone (and often the depths of the piano) until the fourth and last section, which elicited some beautifully smooth, plangent tones from Brown, before petering out in exhaustion.
Perhaps surprisingly, even more mellow tones were reserved by Brown in his performance of Richard Rodney Bennett’s Sonata (1994 or – Grove – 1986). Despite its prescriptive notation and the jazz-inflected harmonies of the Andante, one might almost at times have been listening to the wistful passages of Brahms’s Clarinet Sonatas, and that autumnal glow was sustained by Brown and Nicholson. They did not just bring gorgeous tone but also superb virtuosity and innate musical sense instilling it the music with pulsing life.
To end the evening the Fontanelli musicians returned to perform Swayne’s String Quartet No. 4 (the turning year), composed in 2009, which charts the “ebb and flow of organic growth” over the course of a year, divided into four movements of three months each. Starting in December, the finale brings the work full-circle back to that month with icy tremolandos and slow glissandos. The players raised the musical tension and excitement with frothy trills as Spring approached and accelerated towards high Summer, heralded by fanfares from the violins’ open strings and varying sequences of fifths. A noticeable relaxation of this tension marked the cooling off into Autumn. The steady course of this account ably realised the gradual passage of time and incremental growth and decay.

 

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