Park Lane Group at Wigmore Hall – Gildas Quartet and Joseph Houston [Haydn, Ravel, Appassionata, Images, Esquisses]

String Quartet in F, Op.77/2
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)
Images – Book I
Thomas Simaku
Deux Esquisses [world premiere]
String Quartet in F

Gildas Quartet [Christopher Jones & Jonathan Martindale (violins), Kay Stephen (viola) & Anna Menzies (cello)]

Joseph Houston (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 November, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Since 1956 the Park Lane Group has been a staunch advocate for young artists and new music, not least in its New Year Series (2014’s week is 6-10 January in the Purcell Room).

At Wigmore Hall, as part of The Monday Platform, Joseph Houston and the Gildas Quartet gave a generous and attractive programme. Houston though needed to exploit a wider dynamic range, especially at the quieter end. In the ‘Appassionata’, from the off he was too loud, with little variegation later, and with a shortage of atmosphere and mystery, which are such important qualities in the first movement of the familiar Beethoven. In this choppy if athletic account – there was no doubting his focus and commitment – Houston’s fingers were mainly accurate but there was a relentless quality that offered little engagement and, for all his athleticism, there was little opening-out when it is really needed, such as in the stormier passages of the first movement and in ultimate coda. In Book One of Debussy’s Images, once again the piano was brightly lit and over-refulgent. In Wigmore Hall, sound travels unencumbered even to this auditorium’s farthest reaches and Houston may not have taken this into account. Although his playing of ‘Reflets dans l’eau’ was sensitive, the climax was delivered fiercely, and in ‘Hommage à Rameau’, although appealingly soulful initially it grew to be strident. In the final ‘Mouvement’, Houston’s agility was notable, but the piano seemed souped-up; maybe the problem all along was caused by his over-pedalling. In the premiere of Albanian-born Thomas Simaku’s Deux Esquisses (2013), Houston no doubt brought much dedication, but beyond the composer organising scales, trills and accents – and summoning an overlong pealing conclusion with a melody embedded therein – there was little to get hold off save for a Debussy-like suggestiveness: but he had just been performed.

Bookending the recital were the members of the Gildas Quartet. In Haydn’s final completed work for the genre, the musicians opted for minimal vibrato. This at first made for an unpleasant timbre, which either they adjusted or I got used to. But the performance was plaint and energetic, and mostly enjoyable, save one had a few doubts, here and in the Ravel, about Christopher Jones’s intonation and drained tone. Nevertheless, after the stamping country-dance scherzo-like Minuet, brought off with brio, he and Anna Menzies were in perfect harmony for the nocturnal retreat of the third-movement Andante con moto, richly expressed by all and transporting. The vigour and joy of the finale were well conveyed. The highlight of the evening was the Ravel. Even so, the first movement was pushed along just a little much at times but the players were alive to the music’s intimacies and reveries. The scherzo found its pizzicatos crisply projected, but tuning came adrift in the cool central section, this despite plenty of it between the first three movements. However, it was the Très lent movement that stole the show, tender and affecting, and in which violist Kay Stephen was a star turn with her quite wonderful contribution. The finale is easy to indulge or over-project, traps that the Gildas musicians avoided; indeed their elegant approach was perfectly judged.

Despite some strictures, I wish these five talented musicians the very best for the future.

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