Endymion at Wigmore Hall – Vaughan Williams, Venables & Dohnányi

Vaughan Williams
Quintet in D
Romanticism [Wigmore Hall commission: world premiere]
Sextet in C, Op.37

Endymion [Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Stephen Stirling (horn), Krysia Osostowicz (violin), Judith Busbridge (viola), Jane Salmon (cello) & Michael Dussek (piano)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 October, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Among those chamber groups to grace the UK music scene over recent decades, Endymion has been second to none in its advocacy of new and neglected repertoire. This programme was a case in point, in its framing a commission with works that say much about the composers in their respective apprenticeship and maturity.

The rediscovery of Vaughan Williams’s early output (much of it unheard, if at all, for the best part of a century) essentially got underway with a concert of his chamber music given at the British Library in 2001, of which the present Quintet (1898) was a highlight. Long known merely as an entry in the biographical work-lists, this substantial piece finds the composer struggling to emerge out of the shadow of his Austro-German (as well as Czech!) forebears; with the central movements – an alternately suave and animated Intermezzo, then a passionate if increasingly rhetorical Andantino – faring best in this respect, though the rhapsodic opening Allegro and toccata-like impetus of the finale are not wanting in character. Endymion gave a commanding account of a work such as can easily sprawl if not kept on a tight rein – with the balance problems in combining wind and strings expertly handled, and the music’s effervescence only occasionally threatening to run away with itself. The outcome was a bracing and enjoyable piece that well deserves its periodic revival.

Whether Philip Venables’s Romanticism (2012) will get many further hearings seems debatable. The composer had taken his inspiration from a text by Simon Howard that is essentially a freely associative, stream-of-consciousness meditation on the Romantic ethos seen from a post-modern (and post-Capitalist?) perspective. Diverting if not a little indulgent, it would have been fine as a separate adjunct to the work, but Venables had opted to have the text recited – very elegantly by Stephen Stirling – at the beginning and during the course of his piece with just a minimal accompaniment from piano; which procedure tended to undermine overall cohesion, resulting in a rather piecemeal and unfocussed impression. The music itself made several mostly oblique allusions to ‘Romantic’ composers in the course of its fast-slow-fast trajectory, with the opening bars from the slow movement of Schubert’s ultimate Piano Sonata (in B flat, D960) coming to the fore in the elegiac closing section. Ultimately this seemed less a fully realised piece than a concept working fitfully towards its realisation.

The evening concluded with a welcome hearing of Ernö (Ernst von) Dohnányi’s Sextet (1935) which stands as his last substantial chamber composition and one of his finest. Never a composer of overly progressive tendencies, Dohnányi was evidently aware of the defining idioms of his era – the present work embodying all aspects of its late-Romantic ethos via music that abounds in harmonic subtlety and contrapuntal ingenuity. Endymion had the measure of its bracing first movement, with its give-and-take between energy and repose, while the march-like strains that cut across the initially soulful Intermezzo took on an ominous unease that prevailed through to the close. The third movement’s playful eliding between scherzo and trio, and theme and variations, was vibrantly despatched – leading without a pause into a finale whose breathless momentum and heady dialogue was maintained through to the tonal pun of the concluding cadence. A vital and life-affirming work, of which it would be hard to imagine a more committed or engrossing performance.

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