Hampstead & Highgate Festival 2006 – Contemporary Consort

Trio in B flat, Op.11
Huw Watkins
Court Studies
Three part invention [Festival commission: world premiere]
Fantasiestücke, Op.73

Contemporary Consort:
Alexandra Wood (violin), Sarah Thurlow (clarinet), Sarah Suckling (cello) & Huw Watkins (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 12 May, 2006
Venue: Christ Church, Hampstead Square, London, NW3

Sarah Thurlow formed the Contemporary Consort in 1998 with other Junior Fellows of the Royal College of Music. Their speciality is British music from 1900 to the present day.

In this concert we heard five works by British composers. Bliss’s Pastoral (1916), for clarinet and piano, is beautiful and slightly ruminative, with the distant manner of Edwardian sensibility. Sarah Thurlow wafted its gentle melody expertly and almost imperceptibly through the air. (Bliss once lived in Hampstead.)

Huw Watkins’s Lullaby was beautiful too – a suave violin melody over reticent yet firmly plucked notes on the cello and soft, fragmentary chords on the piano that evoked a rocking motion. Later, in a more agitated atmosphere, the piano dominated a brief climax, held with a C minor chord. The rocking then resumed. This music was simple and skilful – freshly created and freshly played.

Thomas Adès’s Court Studies draw on his opera “The Tempest”. The opening fanfare was arbitrarily brusque and opaque. I found the five intervening sections – in which he gives his courtly characters abstract names – rather characterless. The last section, ‘The King’s Grief’, was more extended. Its taut lament left me unmoved – unlike his “America”, which I much enjoyed some months back. This current work struck me as being grief by numbers – a skilled exercise, not wrung from the heart.

Paul Whitmarsh’s Quartet was the most impressive work of the evening. The writing was imaginative and resourceful – not the customary outing for clarinet with piano trio. The work began with a robust ensemble. Following that was a piano solo; then a violin and cello duet; afterwards, clarinet and strings discoursed. New themes arrived to join those already introduced, the treatment of these themes varying as the instruments available changed. The whole piece was an engrossing kaleidoscope.

Lloyd Moore’s festival commission, Three part invention, was an impassioned academic exercise – a showcase for the “3 components” of these inventions – the violin and the two hands of the pianist. The piano opened with three bell-like chords. A brief quasi-cadenza for unaccompanied violin followed. An agitated moto perpetuo led into a vigorous scherzando, so that the work became ever louder, faster and more impassioned – with powerful theatrical impact. A successful and mind-lingering piece.

Of the non-English works, Bartók received a vigorous and abrasive performance: the dance rhythms wild, hectic and exhilarating. Beethoven’s early work received its spirited due. Credit here, as to much else in this concert, to Sarah Thurlow.

Sarah Suckling’s Schumann was appealing, sensitive and energetic. She is a fine cellist, deserving her spotlit moment; unfortunately, though, her brisk, no-nonsense approach ensured that the composer’s special magic eluded her.

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