Feature Review: Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – English Musical Renaissance 1900-1930 (1)

Written by: David M. Rice


Fantasia on One Note

Vaughan Williams

Phantasy Quintet




The Curlew


Oboe Quintet

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center:

Russell Thomas (tenor)

Paul Neubauer (viola)

Ransom Wilson (flute & alto flute)

Stephen Taylor (oboe & cor anglais)

Orion String Quartet [Daniel Phillips & Todd Phillips (violins), Steven Tenenbom (viola) & Timothy Eddy (cello)]

Alice Tully Hall, New York City

Sunday, February 11, 2007

This was the first of four concerts in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s winter festival, the theme of which is “An English Musical Renaissance, 1900-1930”. The festival also includes a masterclass by mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer and four weekly lectures by the Society’s resident lecturer, Bruce Adolphe, each devoted to a work featured in one of the concerts.

Although it seems odd at first glance that a festival devoted to music of the first third of the twentieth-century would begin with a work from the seventeenth, there was at least some method in the madness of preceding the Phantasy Quintet of Ralph Vaughan Williams with Henry Purcell’s brief Fantasia on One Note. The juxtaposition of these two works, employing identical forces (two violins, two violas and cello), can be seen as symbolising what is implicit in the term “renaissance” – that Vaughan Williams, Elgar and other English composers of the early 20th-century were ending a three-century-long dearth of great music in a truly English idiom, dating all the way back to Purcell – a subject I will not debate here. Purcell’s piece also served to illustrate the fantasia form, which influenced early 20th-century English chamber music thanks to Walter Wilson Cobbett, an amateur musician and enthusiastic patron of the arts who promoted the revival of an updated version of the form – which he dubbed ‘phantasy’ – by funding competitions and commissions of contemporary works, including this Vaughan Williams quintet.

Purcell’s Fantasia on One Note derives its name from the second viola part, which drones on middle C throughout the work, contrasting sharply with the complex textures in the other four instruments. It has been said that Purcell wrote the one-note part to accommodate a novice who wished to sit in with accomplished players, but Paul Neubauer’s skilful and subtle playing, gently bridging between polyphonic episodes, belied the notion that this part required any less musicianship than the others. Vaughan Williams, on the other hand, used the addition of a second viola to create a much deeper and richer sonority than that of a traditional string quartet, and relied on the viola(s) to bear much of the work’s melodic burdens, beginning with the solo that begins the quintet. The opening and closing movements are strongly influenced by English folk music, and the piece as a whole has a stylistic aura that marks it as distinctly English and unmistakably by Vaughan Williams. Both works were ably played.

Vaughan Williams’s Quintet was followed by Conversations, a work by his pupil, Arthur Bliss, who wrote in a more modern idiom than that of his teacher, and was more profoundly influenced by contemporary French music. (Prior to World War I Vaughan Williams had studied briefly with Ravel to acquire “a little French polish”, and after the war, Bliss journeyed to Paris to meet the French composers known as “Les Six” – a group that included Poulenc, Milhaud, and Honegger.) Bliss’s movement titles are quite appropriate. In ‘The Committee Meeting’, the efforts of the chairman (violinist Daniel Philips) failed to bring order to the increasingly cacophonic flute (Ransom Wilson), oboe (Stephen Taylor), viola (Steven Tenenbom) and cello (Timothy Eddy). ‘In the Tube at Oxford Circus’ wittily captured the hectic comings and goings at that transit crossroads. Between those scenes were the nocturnal ‘In the Wood’, dances ‘In the Ball Room’ featuring an alto flute solo beautifully played by Wilson, and Taylor’s expressive ‘Soliloquy’ for unaccompanied cor anglais.

The second half of the programme began with a haunting performance of “The Curlew”, a cycle of four songs by Peter Warlock (the nom de plume of Philip Heseltine) to poetry of William Butler Yeats, sung by Russell Thomas with the Orion String Quartet, Wilson (flute) and Taylor (cor anglais). Though not as well known or as frequently performed as his Capriol Suite, this song-cycle is regarded by many as Warlock’s finest composition, a notion that this outstanding performance did nothing to disabuse.

In the opening song, ‘He reproves the curlew’, Warlock sets the scene with an extended instrumental prelude, beginning with a solo by the cor anglais, which represents the eponymous avian, and featuring a lovely flute solo, also suggestive of birdsong, representing the peewit, as well as shimmering string figures indicative of melancholy. The exquisite delicacy with which this music was performed transported the listener to the desolate physical and emotional landscape of Yeats’s poems even before the tenor’s entry. He beseeches the curlew to still its cry, which reminds him of the tears he shed for a lost love. The second song, which follows another dark interlude in which the curlew’s motif and a lovely cello solo are heard, is descriptively titled ‘The lover mourns for the loss of love’. Thomas kept his strong voice in perfect balance with the instrumental ensemble, rendering Yeats’s words with complete tonal and verbal clarity, at times forcefully and at others in nearly spoken or whispered tones.

In the third song, the longest of the cycle, instrumental motifs are interwoven with the vocal line to depict the serene natural setting in which the narrator falls asleep and the supernatural subjects of his troubled dreams. Thomas ably conveyed the bleakness of the narrator’s despair, singing at the end of each stanza that “The withering of the boughs” (the song’s title) is not “because of the wintry wind”, but “because I have told them my dreams”. The final song, ‘He hears the cry of the sedge’, which followed another extended instrumental interlude, was sung in a nearly spoken tone with the instrumentalists silent until the final line of text, when the strings entered, ultimately fading into silence at the work’s end – a silence that persisted for a respectful interval as the audience savoured what they had just heard.

The programme concluded with Bliss’s Oboe Quintet, with the Orion players joined by Taylor, whose playing was again outstanding. The opening movement, amid its many changes in tempo, featured an early duet passage for oboe and viola and appealing solos for the oboe and cello. The oboe carried most of the melodic burden in the second movement, with the strings, often playing pizzicato, in accompaniment mode, and in the bouncy, spirited final movement the strings mimicked the oboe’s rapidly-tongued melody. Unlike the first two movements, both of which ended on a sustained oboe note, the work concluded with a stirring tutti.

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