Duo for Cello and Double Bass
La bonne chanson, Op.132
On Wenlock Edge
Mark Padmore (tenor), Matthew Hunt (clarinet), Lily Francis (violin & viola), Laura Lutzke (violin), Atar Arad (viola), Philip Higham (cello), Matthew McDonald (double bass) & Ieva Jokubaviciute (piano)
Reviewed by: Emily DeVoto
Reviewed: 29 September, 2010
Venue: West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, UK
The International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove meets for three weeks every September in a remote spot on the coast of Cornwall. It serves as a sort of incubator for professional musicians without regard to seniority to come together and immerse themselves in chamber music, and culminates in a five-concert tour of the UK.
This year’s autumn tour featured tenor Mark Padmore, a number of young professional string players, and veteran violist Atar Arad, who participated in the premiere of his new composition, “Listen”, commissioned by Prussia Cove. In addition to the new work, the programme presented a quirky selection of infrequently performed chamber works from the 19th- and 20th-centuries that showcased, in particular, tenor, clarinet and double bass. The intimate environment of Prussia Cove allowed the musicians to forge performing friendships that resulted in fresh, energetic performances warmly and gladly shared.
This recital, taking place on a drippy autumn evening, was accompanied during silences and between movements by the not-unpleasant sound of rain burbling over the roof. The evening began with Rossini’s Duo for Cello and Double Bass – a salon and unusual piece in the use of double bass on an equal footing with the cello. Philip Higham and Matthew McDonald imbued their dialogue with all of the lyricism and lightness of a comparable duet written a couple of registers higher, say between violin and viola. McDonald, lead bassist for the Berlin Philharmonic, showed off the full expressive and technical range of the instrument, from singing melodic lines to staccato produced by bouncing the bow on the strings, liberating it from its associations with marching pizzicato bass-line or, worse, Tubby the Tuba-like caricatures. The final polonaise, in contrast to the slower, heartfelt second movement, felt a bit of a flamboyant rush to the finish, or at least a throwback to the comic feel of the composer’s operatic works.
Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, for piano, viola and clarinet, is ostensibly a programmatic work, but the fairy-stories themselves are known only to the composer, who apparently asks the listener, and perhaps the performer, to fill them in mentally. Schumann wrote a burst of similar pieces for instrumental ensembles in 1849, and this one, written four years later, near the end of his life, hearkens back to them. Fairy-stories notwithstanding, the third movement is strikingly lovely, reminding the listener of Schumann’s close friendship with Brahms. Lily Francis, Matthew Hunt and Ieva Jokubaviciute presented this four-movement work as an animated conversation. Hunt’s beautifully clear, ringing, and focused clarinet tone unfortunately made it difficult at times to hear Francis’s lovely but subdued playing, an effect perhaps exaggerated by the clarinet’s resonance off the inside of the piano just beside it.
Mark Padmore took to the stage for Atar Arad’s “Listen”, accompanied by strings (including the composer on viola) and clarinet, which sets three unrelated poems by American poet W. S. Merwin, who has just been named US Poet Laureate. Arad’s intent was to move beyond the tangible meaning of the poems, and to imbue them not only with his own interpretation, but also with the listener’s. “By way of music I wanted to have a conversation with Merwin”, Arad writes in relation to the first poem, ‘Thanks’, “expressing what the text means to me, rather than guessing what it means to him.” The second section, ‘Unknown Bird’, compares a melody to the voice of a bird, a fugal dawn-chorus of birdsong for this listener. The tenor’s role is perhaps unusual; occasionally vocalising without text, he becomes one of the instruments, and converses with them, and they with him. Contemporary in the best sense, the music and texts of “Listen” – and their interplay – are accessible and enjoyable at a number of levels. Arad plays with academic constructs, such as a 12-tone row based on the Nokia ring tone, and introduces a hint of a quote from Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.
Fauré’s “La bonne chanson”, in the composer’s arrangement for voice and piano quintet, is another infrequently performed work, a song-cycle inspired by the composer’s love for a married woman who eventually married Debussy, setting a number of the light-filled, fantastic, and nature-embracing yet spiritual poems written by Verlaine for his own lover. The quintet’s role in “La bonne chanson” is an accompanying one, the very French-sounding muted strings, in particular, mirroring the radiance, clear skies, and nightingales described by the poetry. Padmore, apart from a bit of an English accent, sang Fauré’s music and Verlaine’s texts with their intended clarity of feeling, and beyond. He showed no sign of being daunted or wearied by the songs’ considerable technical challenges, effortlessly maintaining his true and unaffected tone across register changes and unexpected intervals.
The final work was “On Wenlock Edge”, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s setting of A. E. Housman’s poetry for tenor and piano quintet, one of the great British song settings. Nature – if not birdsong – and pastoral yearning return as a theme, though one can glean from the dour texts that Housman, in contrast to Verlaine, was not a particularly happy man, and his spirits were not uplifted by his surroundings. The composer, however, was able to re-imbue his settings to some extent with atmospheric effect, which may have reflected his study with Maurice Ravel without overtly aping him. These songs brought the prevailing mood of the concert – which must have been gruelling for all performers, particularly Padmore – back down toward earth.