British Premieres at Wigmore Hall – Britten, Bliss & Vaughan Williams

Divertimenti for String Quartet
Seven American Poems
Vaughan Williams
Sonata in A minor for Violin and Piano

Musicians from Royal College of Music

Hera Quartet [Agata Policinska & Yuka Matsumoto (violins), Edmund Smith (viola) & Frédérique Legrand (cello)]

Rosie Aldridge (mezzo-soprano) & Belinda Jones (piano)

Joo Yeon Sir (violin) & Chen Chen (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 24 May, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

As part of its 110th-season, Wigmore Hall has chosen a selection of British works premiered at the venue and now seen through the eyes of musicians from the Royal College of Music in lunchtime concerts, each curated by the College’s professor of Performance History, Paul Banks. The second recital began with Benjamin Britten’s Three Divertimenti. It seems those present in the Hall on 25 February 1936 did not respond well to these vivacious pieces, the composer remarking afterwards on the “sniggering and pretty cold silence”. It was enough for Britten to archive the score, which remained unpublished until 1983. It was good, then, to witness the enthusiasm and verve applied to these pieces by the Hera Quartet, whether in the full-blooded tutti passages of ‘March’ or the attractive lilt of ‘Waltz’ given plenty of air through Frédérique Legrand’s cello theme, the players bringing together Britten’s youthful vigour and invention in ‘Burlesque’, the composer’s skills soon to find greater exposure in Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge.

Arthur Bliss’s “Seven American Poems” was less successful, more for the music than the performance. The songs were written with the composer in unintentional exile in America, the Second World War having started while he was on a brief visit to New Jersey. Originally intended for low voice and piano, the songs were first performed at Wigmore Hall on 8 November 1941 with the composer accompanying William Parsons, though Bliss’s performing role was not referred to in the programme for this concert. Rosie Aldridge brought much personality to the verses, but was hard-pressed to make a strong emotional impact with poems essentially of postcard-length. The fourth one, ‘Little Elegy’, was more substantial in its impact, while Belinda Jones’s gruff postlude to ‘The Siege’ conveyed “death beating the door in” to strong effect.

The written notes also failed to mention anything about the first performance of Vaughan Williams’s Violin Sonata, which was given by its dedicatee Frederick Grinke, accompanied by Michael Mullinar, in a BBC broadcast on the composer’s 82nd-birthday on 12 October 1954. The Sonata is a piece of considerable stature showing how the composer’s harmonic thinking had advanced considerably, skirting the boundaries of atonality in its third-movement Theme and Variations. The work’s wisdom might make the work a difficult proposition for students to perform, but Joo Yeon Sir and Chen Chen coped admirably with the technical and emotional demands. At times however the violin’s longer melodic phrases were clipped, losing some of the essential continuity of the first-movement ‘Fantasia’, but the bold, double-stopped passages were more impressively wrought. Chen was a more than capable accompanist, probing and structurally aware, so that the Variations became increasingly effective exploring remote keys and unusual rhythms. Joo Yeon Sir’s final cadenza was a particular delight, unexpectedly bringing direct looking-back references to The Lark Ascending before a serene ending put worrisome earlier passages in context, turning the Sonata’s prevailing minor-key into the major for the first and only time.

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