Ensemble na Mara

Suite in A for string trio
String Trio in G minor – Lento
Piano Quartet [London premiere]
Piano Quartet in A, Op.26

Ensemble na Mara [Tom Hankey (violin), Fiona Winning (viola), Eilidh Martin (cello), Alasdair Beatson (piano)]

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 16 February, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Suite’s first public performance was at the Helsinki Music Institute, during Sibelius’s last term there before moving to study in Berlin. He was 24. His friend, Federico Busoni, was among the appreciative audience.

The originality of the three surviving movements (two are lost) is striking. The violin – Sibelius’s instrument – predominates in the first two, and the writing is not particularly interesting. But the minimal viola and cello accompaniment is another matter, and that’s where the originality lies. Firstly, there’s economy: both instruments are used sparingly. The interventions are more effective through being less frequent. Secondly, the accompaniment catches the ear. The material is conventional – for example, intermittent, occasional plucked strings in unison during the first movement and lightly-played upward scales runs from the cello in the second. The originality lay in using straightforward, conventional devices unconventionally. It takes an acute musical ear to make that leap. The closing ‘Gigue’ is largely fugal – another surprise!

The Lento of Sibelius’s unfinished String Trio, from four or five years later, is weightier. Dark, brooding chords move upwards in small steps in the manner of a heavily-shackled prisoner climbing step by step from a deep dungeon. Three or four times, the music tries to escape – but the dark chords return, at a slightly higher pitch. There was no getting away from those shackles.

Timothy Salter’s Piano Quartet is a commission. Ensemble na Mara arranged it; the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust financed it. Salter teaches composition and performance studies at the Royal College of Music in London.

The first two movements (‘Vigorous’ and ‘Fluid’) begin on the piano. Virtually unaccompanied, it announces an austere, angular theme which makes no claims to being melodic. My first reaction was to groan inwardly, recalling the often-arid modernism of Rawsthorne’s and Fricker’s time.

But matters improve. When Salter starts playing with his themes, experimenting with their capabilities and sonic opportunities in combining strings and piano, his talent and expertise come to the fore. I delighted in his many delicate and unusual juxtapositions, in the transparency of his “ethereal harmonics”, the vigour of his massed strings competing with a thrusting piano, the hints of melodiousness of manner and the viola’s lone stance against the combined authority of violin and cello. ‘With nervous energy’ plays vigorous catch with a band of semiquavers, to and fro. This movement finds Salter’s vital sternness in unbuttoned mood.

Brahms’s Piano Quartet is dense and monumental. The first and last movements are in sonata form. We hear a soft gentle Brahms, recalling lyrical pieces for piano and love-filled songs – and his yearning for Clara Schumann. We hear gruffer, thicker textures from the Brahms who intervenes, puts his foot down and makes an emphatic declaration. We hear, too, the impassioned Brahms whose powerful emotions suddenly burst forth with the free-flowing thunder of water whose pipe is suddenly unblocked.

Ensemble na Mara had clearly thought these aspects through. The performance was vigorously committed, presenting the differing moods with clarity and strength. It also made sure of having enough dynamic reserve to rise to the occasion during the finale’s wildness, keeping a firm, muscular grip on the music’s threat to leap out of control.

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