Barbirolli Quartet [Katie Stillman & Rakhi Singh (violins), Ella Brinch (viola) & Victoria Simonsen (cello)]
Andrew Harper (clarinet) & Joseph Middleton (piano)
James Barralet (cello)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 9 January, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room
The early-evening recital provided a showcase for the Barbirolli Quartet, one of a growing number of all-female ensembles. Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-94) deserves to be heard outside her centenary year, and ‘Quartetto Corto’ (1984) – her thirteenth and last work for the medium – is a fine example of her late work: its continuous sections outlining a sonata-form and a three- movement ground-plan, with all of the harmonic and rhythmic incisiveness that are hallmarks of this composer.
The Barbirolli Quartet dispatched it with assurance, and was equally convincing in Folk Music (2007) by Joe Cutler – here receiving its London première and a brief but heady compendium of archetypal gestures that begs to be extended into a larger whole.
Dominating the recital, though, was Notturno (1993) by Luciano Berio (1925-2003): the third of his four works for string quartet (though the programme note-writer was clearly unaware of the fourth, Glosse, from 1997). Notturno’s sombre yet fastidiously-shaded and luminous textures and fugitive yet highly focused evolution were new to Berio’s music and so give the lie to the charge he was merely re-tilling old ground in his later years. Without at all compromising the work’s seamless follow-through, the Barbirolli players drew a notably wide expressive range from its content – opening this up to a degree that the subsequent string orchestra transcription signally fails to achieve. A memorable performance, then, to round-off a recital that surely ranks as a highlight of this year’s PLG Young Artists week.
If neither of the components in the later-evening recital quite equalled what had gone before, this was not because of failings on the part of the performers. Clearly a clarinettist to reckon with, Andrew Harper opened with Birds Practise Songs in Dreams (2002) by Brian Elias – an evocation of the theory that birds do indeed ‘sing in their sleep’ that was thought-provoking more as a concept than as music. More distinctive was Jonathan Harvey’s Be(com)ing (1981), for all that the contrasted musical layers representing ‘being’ and ‘coming’ were more interesting in themselves than in their amalgam. Joseph Middleton proved a sensitive accompanist both here and in Timothy Salter’s characterful triptych Mondrian Pictures (1997) which followed after the interval, but it was Harper alone who stole the show with a commanding performance of Brian Ferneyhough’s bass clarinet classic Time and Motion Study I (1977), here rendered as a showpiece with substance that rightly brought the house down.
Complementing the above in every respect, cellist James Barralet is a more self-effacing though no less able musician whose contribution got off to a fine start with Edwin Roxburgh’s Partita for Solo Cello (1970) – a four-movement piece in which stark contrasts of mood and pace are welded into a powerfully cumulative whole. Even stronger musically is Kenneth Hesketh’s Die hängende Figur ist Judas (1998), three perspectives for solo cello on varying images (both visual and literary) of the betrayer and his demise in which subtly varied ‘swinging’ motifs underpin each of the movements to haunting and unnerving effect.
Ending the evening after the Ferneyhough was a tough challenge that Barralet met head-on with Benjamin Britten’s Third Cello Suite (1971). Passing technical flaws were as little compared to the cumulative intensity invested in this most evocative of the three works, with the emergence of the theme after the final set of variations crowning a performance of some authority.