Blackheath Bonanza – Sunday Mornings at Blackheath Halls Spring 2003

Written by: Peter Grahame Woolf

Blackheath Halls is an increasingly important centre for classical music in South-East London. During the Spring there was an exceptionally fine season of their famous Sunday Mornings series of full-length concerts, which vie with the popular Coffee Concerts at Wigmore Hall. The Blackheath Halls also benefit from an association with Trinity College of Music in Greenwich, whose students give free Friday lunchtime recitals there and at other venues in the vicinity.

The Endymion Ensemble 9 February

York Bowen – Horn Quintet

Edmund Rubbra – Lyric Piece

Elgar – Piano Quintet

This programme of less often heard English music linked with Elgar and Robin Milford heard the previous Sunday morning. The Endymion Ensemble has been quarrying the rich vein of forgotten and neglected British music of up to a hundred years ago, and told us that this exploration had been ’a lot of fun’. Elgar’s piano quintet can be hard to balance, and one can be put off by an excess of bombast in the finale, but the Endymion Ensemble gave it to best advantage, Michael Dussek allowing the strings to dominate without straining. Before it we had enjoyed Rubbra’s early Lyric Piece and a rare opportunity to hear music by York Bowen (1884-1961), a ’big’ pianist and apparently the first to record Beethoven’s 4th Concerto. Sidelined after the First World War, he never held with the new-fangled ideas of Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel and paid the price. Bowen continued to compose prolifically but was marginalised for the remainder of his long life because of his conservatism. The Horn Quintet was a good example of chamber music which has a lot to offer, and it was well received by an encouragingly large Sunday morning audience, which took the chance to come and listen to unfamiliar music. The Endymion strings were on fine form, with Michael Stirling a notable soloist, relishing Bowen’s expertise in writing effectively for the horn. Not great music, and with few surprises as it proceeds, yet mellifluous and well crafted; a positive experience because one was hearing it without the baggage of memory one brings to each of the canonic masterpieces.

Dante Quartet 17 February

Mozart – Quartet K499

Rubbra – Quartet No.1

Franck – Quartet

After breakfast on 17 February, first to Blackheath Halls (as Samuel Pepys might say) for the Dante Quartet’s launch of their Rubbra quartets cycle, each programme featuring also one of the great French quartets. On tremendous form at 11.30, unanimity of ensemble, led unobtrusively by Krysia Osostowicz, intonation and tonal balance were impeccable throughout a long morning. The Dante’s account of one of Mozart’s Hoffmeister Quartet held me entranced from its first phrase. Since the wall-to-wall Mozart in his bicentenary year, I have found it wise to limit exposure to this unquestioned genius; over-familiarity can dull receptivity.

Edmund Rubbra’s quartets are tonal but less conservative than they first appear – he was an independent original who injected new life into familiar forms, form guided by content and its contrapuntal elaboration. The first of the four has two grand sonorous movements followed by a crisp little finale which left you keen to hear the others (listen to it on the Dante Quartet’s excellent website).

Franck’s monumental Quartet, dating from his last year, was a heavy last course before lunch. A rarity in the UK, one that this quartet (influenced by its French cellist?) cherishes, as too have I since buying its first recording – my ancient Eulenburg score notes the numerous side changes on the 78s, long lost. Franck’s quartet is beautiful, no question, and was beautifully played, but its exhaustive working out of material brought to mind the heavenly lengths of Schubert and Bruckner, and on this occasion it entranced me less than I anticipated, the latter movements outstaying their welcome. The mercurial scherzo is however a sheer winner, which could be an encore favourite.

Ensemble Quintessence 2 March

Ligeti – Six Bagatelles

Tansy Davies – Fern

Joe Duddell – Endgame

Janacek – Mladi

Grown from a five-girl wind quintet first encountered in 1998 to a flexible bi-gendered ensemble, Ensemble Q added bass clarinet & percussion to their core quintet for Sunday Morning at Blackheath. This was one of the best concerts in an exceptionally good current series. The Ligeti pieces were well tuned and as pointed as you could wish, every detail made unerringly in the Recital Room’s improved acoustics. The players listen to each other, the ’quintessence’ of good chamber music playing, and they reduce dynamics to accompany their colleagues, so that the texture is ever changing. For example, the flautist displayed a wide range of tone and dynamics, and in Mladi never let her piccolo screech. Anxiety and regret were more prominent in this performance than high spirits. One of last century’s most imperishable masterpieces, I must have heard it fifty times but its freshness never palls, and this account brought out new facets. The Quintessence’s interpretation of Mladi possibly grew from the elderly composer’s addition of bass clarinet, and this theme was taken further in Tansy Davies’s new piece for them.

The starting point for Davies was some Klee and Kandinsky paintings. Fern is a continuous work of some 18 minutes, combining clarity and accessibility, staccato articulation letting in air so that everything could be heard. The darker tones of cor anglais, bass clarinet and contra-bassoon suffused its ’nocturnal’ quality, punctuated by crisp comments from percussion to keep everything in order. This was the world premiere of a piece that will live, and I am glad that it is to be included in the second CD which the group will record shortly.

The Clerks’ Group 9 March

Music for Troubled Times: 14th Century France

Motets, Mass music & songs by Machaut

For a real novelty, the usual instrumental chamber music fare on Sunday Mornings was varied with medieval vocal music given by four singers of The Clerks’ Group; a fascinating recital of 14 C. music, interspersed with evocative readings from Froissart’s Chronicles by Clerks’ director Edward Wickham. The main composer was Guillaume de Machaut, with anonymous items from the Ivrea Manuscript. People came from afar and the programmes with texts were sold out before we arrived! That was unfortunate, as this was a period of great musical complexity in which elaborate counterpoint prevailed, with the additional curiosity that different texts, to our ears incompatible, were set simultaneously! Edward Wickham gave examples of motets in which, above a plainchant tenor, higher voices sung secular texts; one asked ’why does my husband beat me?’. Another dealt graphically with the cuckolding of a blacksmith, and a ’post missarum sollempnia’ carried an injunction to tradesmen to conduct their lives morally. Never can sounds of such ineffable beauty have been heard in the Recital Room; the voices were perfectly blended and acutely tuned, all enhanced by the barrel-vaulted room, an ideal acoustic to relish the concerted items and Lucy Ballard’s solos.

The Schubert Ensemble 16 March

Mozart – Piano Quartet in E flat

Rory Boyle – Phaeton’s Dancing Lesson (1st London performance)

Fauré – Piano Quartet No.1

The Schubert Ensemble usually includes one of its own commissions in their programmes. This Sunday morning it was the turn of the prolific Scottish composer Rory Boyle (b. 1951) who lives in South Ayrshire. Phaeton’s Dancing Lesson (2002) is a continuous piece lasting about 15 minutes, which depicts graphically the violent ill-fated journey of the son of Phoebus the sun god. He is unable to control the chariot of the sun, causing havoc and ending in spectacular oblivion. The composer explains that the fast outer sections are Dithyrambs, wild Greek dances, sharing thematic material, as do the inner slower dances (Waltz and Saraband). The central Tango section is based on a serial row, which allows for some jazz chords in the harmonies. The musical language is dramatic and accessible, crafted with sure expertise and welcomed by the Blackheath Sundays audience.

There was a special surprise; Simon Blendis explained why the concert was moved down to the Large Hall; it was so that William Howard might have the opportunity to be the first to play in public (and we to hear) the new Fazioli grand, which had been acquired by the Halls that week. No need for comment on the familiar Mozart and Fauré performances; these players produce reliable and vital accounts of the standard works in their large repertoire, the fruit of many years playing and touring together.

Emperor Quartet 23 March

Mozart – String Quartet in D Minor K.421

James MacMillan – Quartet No.2 ’Why is this night different’

Walton – String Quartet in A minor

Winners of the Menuhin Prize at the 1994 London International String Quartet Competition (I was there!) the Emperor, with membership unchanged for the decade of their existence, were unwise to start with Mozart, a composer who exposes the slightest weakness mercilessly – especially on a Sunday morning! But all changed dramatically with the Macmillan, a dramatic piece which confronts extremes and enthralled the (all too small) audience, a satisfying performance, repeating their success with MacMillan’s quartets and clarinet quintet on BIS CD-1269. Likewise the second, and better known, of Walton’s two quartets, which had energy, malice and tranquility before the ’fierce momentum’ of its finale (the two Walton quartets – that of 1922 the larger – are recommendable – Black Box BBM1035).

Summer 2003

The summer classical programme can be seen on the Blackheath Halls website. The Sunday Mornings series is its backbone, but there are also some evening and afternoon concerts.

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