Hampstead & Highgate Festival 2006 – Opening Concert

Piano Quartet in G minor, K478
J. F. Brown
Prospero’s Isle [World premiere]
Piano Trio No.1 in C minor, Op.8
Piano Quintet in A, D667 (Trout)

Katharine Gowers (violin), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola), Gemma Rosefield (cello), Benjamin Griffiths (double bass) & Gretel Dowdeswell (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 May, 2006
Venue: The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London, NW3

This year’s Hampstead and Highgate Festival got off to a fine start with a substantial recital given by five leading British musicians of the younger generation. Over the last few years, festival director George Vass has pursued a vigorous policy of new commissions: this recital saw the first performance of Prospero’s Isle by James Francis Brown. In his programme note, Brown was at pains to point out that Shakespeare’s play should not be taken as a literal presence – except at the level where an exercising of power (magical or otherwise) is analogous to the composer’s manipulation of musical substance.

What resulted is a continuous span of 15 minutes, and with an overall slow-fast-slow-fast trajectory. Although not a sonata as such, the piece is both organic in the way motifs evolve from one section to the next and dynamic in that each section builds on the one before so that a cumulative intensity is always evident. Thus the preludial opening section outlines salient ideas to be developed – first in a driving, toccata-like section, then in an ‘adagio’ whose innate lyricism is powerfully sustained. A final section combines these qualities, in an outpouring of vigorous and affirmative energy. Prospero’s Isle received a committed and finely attuned performance by Gemma Rosefield and Gretel Dowdeswell, and continues the line of significant chamber works – building on the past from the perspective of the present – that Brown has been pursuing over the last decade. Further hearings will no doubt follow.

No festival in 2006 could avoid some emphasis on Shostakovich and Mozart. Shostakovich was represented by his First Piano Trio (1923) – a one-movement piece whose melodic indebtedness to Rachmaninov is balanced by a resourceful integration of movement types, so a dynamic process is apparent from the outset, and a flexible handling of tonal relations to remind one the masterly First Symphony was just two years away. It was given a vibrant yet cogent reading, whereas that of Mozart’s G minor piano quartet seemed a little muted in the opening movement– its G minor pathos insufficiently conveyed – and only took wing in a lilting and unforced account of the Andante, and a finale whose nonchalant humour was as tellingly conveyed as its stormier asides.

If the Mozart is as perfect a realisation of the chamber medium’s potential as has yet been achieved, then Schubert’s Trout Quintet is for many the encapsulation of chamber music as the civilised and diverting interplay of equals. A quality that was fully evident in this performance – at its best in the thoughtfully equivocal moods of the Andante, and a rendering of the fourth movements Variations that underlined just how flexible the composer was prepared to be with his song-theme so that the needs of expressive variety and formal consistency could be met. The scherzo was engagingly buoyant, and if the outer movements were a little too affectionate at times, the second half of the finale readily took flight. The ‘false ending’ in the latter never ceases to surprise, as was evident in this account, but if it serves – as here – to give an added impetus through to the close, then Schubert’s humour is there for a purpose!

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