Taking the healing musical waters [Leamington Music, 30 April-4 May 2010]

Written by: Tully Potter

For twenty-one years Richard Phillips has been organising May long-weekends of music, first at Warwick and latterly at Leamington Spa, and he has built up an uncanny skill in matching programmes to ensembles and leavening the familiar with the esoteric. I made my debut, so to speak, two years ago for a Czech weekend combined with the annual meeting of the Dvořák Society; and tempted by this year’s focus on Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin, with a few dashes of Weber, I returned for this year’s feast.

The Friday evening brought the Schubert Ensemble of London to the Royal Pump Rooms, for three piano quartets, Mendelssohn’s teenage F minor, Weber’s B flat and Schumann’s splendid E flat. The Weber, from the composer’s early 20s, was new to me and I felt the cheeky Minuet would make a good encore for this kind of group. Both youthful works were well performed but I have heard more profound accounts of the Schumann.

Saturday noon gave us a closer acquaintance with both the Schubert Ensemble’s pianist William Howard and the Fazioli instrument hired for the festival. The programme was well-conceived and well-played, with short pieces by Wagner, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann followed by my favourite among Robert Schumann’s major sequences, the Humoresque, and two popular Chopin warhorses, the First Ballade and Second Scherzo. Throughout the weekend the piano rather divided the audience – some thought it led pianists to play too loudly – but I found its tone interesting after endless Steinways.

That evening the Wihan Quartet gave one of the best performances I have heard from this group: Mendelssohn’s anguished F minor. Schumann’s F major was marginally less assured; but after the interval the players merely had to play beautifully, as the ‘orchestra’ for Martin Kasík’s rendering of Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto. It was an intriguing effect to have the piano coming through the accompaniment from the back of the stage, but I would not rush to repeat the experience, for all the sensitivity on display.

For Sunday noon, we had the outstanding lyric baritone Roderick Williams in seven songs by Mendelssohn – ending with the obvious one – followed by Schumann’s Kerner settings. I had been looking forward to my first hearing of Williams in a recital and was not a whit disappointed. He arrives as if he is really glad to be there and communicates intimately with his auditors. Having heard some criticism of his lower register, I paid particular attention to it: the tone is less beautiful than the middle and upper registers but it is firm and never gritty. Andrew West proved a terrific partner, playing up a real storm in the first Kerner song and at the other end of the scale producing exquisite pianissimos.

The Guarneri Trio of Prague gave the evening concert, especially impressive at the end in Mendelssohn’s D minor, intense but not sentimental. Of the rest, I most enjoyed a rare hearing of Schumann’s Three Romances, Opus 94, in the violin version, played by Cenek Pavlík with the ensemble’s great pianist Ivan Klansky. The Assembly Room at the Royal Pump Rooms has its acoustic oddities, as the stage is let into one of the long walls, and so the audience sits in a wide, shallow mass. I found it difficult to separate the instruments aurally at the opening of Chopin’s Trio.

We started bank-holiday Monday at 11 in the morning with a superb recital by Simon Lawford, assistant organist of Chichester Cathedral, at the 1925 Hill, Norman and Beard organ (restored in 1982 by Longstaff and Jones) in the magnificent Victorian Gothic All Saints Church. After Bach’s A minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV543, and Mendelssohn’s Fourth Sonata, he played one of Schumann’s Fugues on BACH, two of Saint-Saëns’s Improvisations (from Opus 150) – the Allegro giocoso very exciting – and the ‘Adagio’ and ‘Final’ of Vierne’s Third Symphony: some glorious noises and nifty hand- and foot-work.

Then straight back to the Assembly Room for Martin Kasík’s piano recital, a thoughtfully selected Chopin group together with Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Like Howard, Kasík concentrates on line and structure in Schumann, which is fine by me – what some people call ‘poetry’ is often an excuse for a loss of grip. A pupil of Klansky, Kasík is perhaps the best of the younger Czech pianists.

In the evening British pianist Michael Dussek appeared with Leos Cepicky of the Wihan Quartet – their interpretation of the fiendishly difficult Schumann D minor Violin Sonata was terrific – and cellist Gemma Rosefield. She has a rather woody tone and uses vibrato quite sparingly, which makes it all the more conspicuous when she starts vibrating late on some notes. On at least two occasions she began wobbling her left-hand at the end of a note, a bizarre device which merely muddied an otherwise immaculate phrase. When she gets her vibrato working properly, the effect can be exquisite. She did not always match the piano’s phrasing – twice in the little tag which comes in the finale of Mendelssohn’s D major Sonata and is sung in Elijah to the words “Hear the sacrifice we offer”, she lengthened the same note. Elsewhere her phrasing could be equally predictable. I mention these faults because she is a confident, highly talented player – having learnt how to wow an audience, she should now aim to please the connoisseurs. All three musicians gave an involving performance of Schumann’s D minor Trio.

Sometimes happenstance influences Richard Phillips’s programming. A century ago, his grandmother studied the violin in Brussels and became friendly with a Dutch pianist. The families still keep in touch and the pianist’s great-grand-daughters Anne-Marie Volten, violin, and Sonja Volten, soprano, gave our Tuesday noon recital with Abigail Richards, a Netherlands-based British pianist. Richards played a tad too strongly in Schumann’s A minor Violin Sonata and Brahms’s C minor Scherzo; but she accompanied Anne-Marie well in the three violin Romances by Clara Schumann and meshed nicely with Sonja in songs by both Schumanns, two by Clara and Frauenliebe und –Leben by Robert. I fancied it was the first time I had heard this cycle performed by two women; and, as usual, Robert’s music overshadowed his wife’s. Clara’s genius was as a pianist, critic and teacher. The three young ladies ended a delightful concert by combining in Ännchen’s Act Two aria from Weber’s Der Freischütz.

The closing concert, by Ensemble 360 from Sheffield, focused on the fluent clarinet of Matthew Hunt in Weber’s Quintet and Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, Opus 73. He performs prodigies of cantabile and breath-control, not to mention some amazingly virtuosic tootling, but I wonder if he needs to move about quite so much – it can lead to some screechy notes at phrase-ends. Schumann’s Fantasiestücke for piano trio, Opus 88, seemed no more vital than usual; but Mendelssohn’s early Sextet, with pianist Tim Horton and excellent strings including double bassist Daniel Whibley, rightly brought the house down.

A word of caution amid the euphoria: Richard Phillips turns 70 this year and among the friendly throng I spotted very few concertgoers from the 25-45 age-group. Like many another organisation, Leamington Music – which promotes some three dozen concerts a year – needs to renew itself before the stalwarts become too tired by the hard work. This kind of cultural enterprise is too precious to be allowed to dwindle in any way.

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