Happy Birthday Montessori [First performance]
24 Miniatures [UK premiere]
String Quintet in C, D956
Philippa Mo & Pierre Bensaid (violins), Chian Lim (viola), Alexander Chaushian & Philippa Cauchefer (cellos), Michael Francis (double bass), Gareth Davies (flute & piccolo), Owen Dennis (oboe), Chi-Yu Mo (clarinet), Sarah Burnett (bassoon), John Ryan (French horn), Duncan Gould (bass clarinet), David Jackson (percussion), Della McDonald (piano)
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 13 July, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
All of these performers have spent time at Great Beginnings Montessori School showing their instruments to the children and playing them. Wendy Innes – Principal of Great Beginnings, which she founded in 1983 – writes: “[The children] have been exposed at the most formative time of their lives to most accomplished musicians, playing on the finest musical instruments. The passion and dedication shown by the musicians during their visits was the greatest inspiration to everyone.”
For “Happy Birthday Montessori” – the school was originally founded in 1907 in Rome – by Rachel Leach, the London Symphony Orchestra’s animateur, the stage jostled with people less than five feet high, singing in fresh, animated childish treble (all conducted by Simon Sundermann). They enjoyed ticking like a clock and told us “Time to grow / Free to move / Time to think / Free to choose” and they sang a tone row made from converting the letters of the School’s name into notes. Who could not enjoy this greeting?
Prokofiev’s Quintet for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass comprises six short dance movements, mostly drawn from a ballet, Trapeze. This lively, witty score includes a Russian folksong, Klezmer marching band and a dancing bear and jazz. The perky insouciance could have had a little more bite; the double bass’s dancing bear was agreeably gawky.
24 Miniatures (2000) by Laurent Perrenoud, for violin and percussion, was riveting. Philippa Mo stood stock still, playing all manner and style of phrases in all 24 keys – in snatches of less than 12 bars each. David Jackson, meanwhile, kept busy running from drum to triangle to tubular bells and many other instruments besides. The ingenuity of the writing was quite dazzling; so was the playing – the expertise of Mo’s near-instantaneous transitions from one style to another was often startling and always impressive.
Mládi has plenty of expressive and lively writing. There are distinctive solo spots for clarinet, bass clarinet, French horn, flute, piccolo, oboe and bassoon. I was particularly taken with John Ryan’s French horn and Sarah Burnett’s bassoon. Chi-Yu Mo’s clarinet was soft and tender, but rather anonymous and smooth. These accomplished musicians did not sound familiar with playing in this ensemble – nor with the quirks of Janáček’s idiom. As a result, the phrasing was often less than fully characterful; often, the composer’s abrupt changes made little sense.
Schubert’s String Quintet, a heavyweight, filled the second half of this otherwise light-hearted celebration. Perhaps a work requiring a second cello was required. The performance was admirably clear and pointed, elegant and agile and had a strong sense of ensemble. Schubert’s great rumblings were passing clouds, quite threatening but not lasting. This was, then, very much a work whose key-signature was C major. The first movement was briskly impressive, the slow movement careful yet most tender, the scherzo was agreeably light, though rather overburdened by its serious trio, while the finale scampered home agreeably.