Music at Woodhouse

Enescu
Suite for Piano No.1, Op.10 – Toccata & Pavane
Beethoven
String Quartet in C, Op.59/3 (Razumovsky)
Elgar
Quintet for piano and strings in A minor, Op.84

James Lisney (piano)
ConTempo String Quartet


Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 19 November, 2004
Venue: Woodhouse Copse, Holmbury St Mary, near Dorking, Surrey

Woodhouse Copse is a delightful spot in the middle of the Surrey countryside. Its fourteen acres of garden and woods includes a house designed by Oliver Hill adjacent to which is a purpose-built concert hall, ideal for chamber music, piano and song recitals, as well as masterclasses and other musical events.

Primarily intended to encourage young professional musicians, “Music at Woodhouse” also presents occasional concerts with established artists. The next, on 3 December, is given by Jonathan Lemalu.

One of Woodhouse’s Artistic Patrons is pianist James Lisney, who opened this programme with two movements from Enescu’s Op.10 Piano Suite. Dating from Enescu’s student days in Paris, it reveals individual musical thought, even if there are occasional – and affectionate – allusions to other composers. Most odd was a distinct – and repeated – reference to Loge’s fire music from Wagner’s ‘Ring’, but alongside this was Gallic charm, worthy of Enescu’s teacher Fauré. The ‘Toccata’ is no empty showpiece, its display of scales revealing compositional confidence without brashness, and the rippling parts moving in contrary motion exploit pianistic textures most effectively. By contrast, the ‘Pavane’, with its more overtly ornate figuration seemed to anticipate ‘neo-classical’ writing by a decade or two, and the filigree writing towards the close suggested an impressionist slant.

But hints of others cannot disguise Enescu’s innate qualities, through music which demands, by turn, no little virtuosity and delicacy. James Lisney was fully equal to the task, and gave a performance that compelled and convinced. One’s only regret was that the whole Suite was not played.

This Romanian start to the evening aptly heralded the arrival of the ConTempo String Quartet (its members not listed in the programme), which hails from Bucharest and comprises players who were students at the Music University there. Formed in 1995, the musicians are currently providing the first professional residency in the West of Ireland and are holding the Chamber Music Fellowship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where they also undertake chamber music coaching.

This performance of the third of Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets impressed immediately with its sense of commitment and integration between the players. The ambiguous opening, with those strange chords, was full of portent and questing. Dynamic contrasts were scrupulously observed, without being contrived. Indeed, the air of spontaneity throughout was palpable; evidence, of course, of thorough and meticulous preparation. The main body of the first movement was taken at a judicious pace, which allowed inner parts, in particular, to register clearly, whilst the first violin and cello framed these with firm yet sensitive delivery of the melodic and bass lines. There was no want of panache and the varied moods and details were finely caught.

The melancholy aura of the second movement was notable for the sense of the music passing – literally – from one player to another, empathetically so from these musicians. The pizzicato cello provided a resonant and dramatic foundation to the whole, and the elegance of ConTempo’s reading of the Menuetto allowed time for some of Beethoven’s quirkier harmonic moments to be savoured.Rapidity of articulation ensured that the finale had an inevitable and exhilarating, aided by the musicians’ close proximity to the audience.

James Lisney returned for Elgar’s Piano Quintet, which was all the more effective – and moving – for a commendable absence of sentimentality and false emoting, which is fatal in this repertoire, but which Elgar seems to attract, much to his music’s detriment.

This quintet is quintessentially ‘late’ Elgar, but far from feeling as if the ideas are meandering or soaked in melancholy, this performance ensured that the thematic ideas were rigorously presented. The unison string lines in the first movement were admirably determined, and the balance difficulties that often beset performances were not evident here. The restless, even nervous quality of the music was well conveyed, the writing acquiring an almost symphonic integrity.

Elgar described the Adagio as his “finest slow movement”, and the richness of the melodic and harmonic thinking, allied to structural integrity, allows musicians to present the material straightforwardly, as if the composer has built-in caution against gilding the lily. There is sufficient emotional weight inherent in this music which does not require additional pampering: James Lisney and ConTempo delivered the music affectionately and not without ardour.The finale finds Elgar drawing strands together, and the various musical threads were easy to follow in this performance, so sure was each player of his or her place in the proceedings. As the quintet drew to its conclusion, the cumulative effect was striving and satisfying.

On the evidence of this enjoyable concert, I would suggest that “Music at Woodhouse” is well worth seeking out.

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