Benjamin Powell (piano)
Rosemary Burton (bassoon) & Christopher White (piano)
Solstice Quartet [Jamie Campbell & Nicholas Shardlow (violins), Meghan Cassidy (viola) & Gregor Riddell (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 9 January, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room
The final day of this year’s Park Lane Group New Year Series opened with an early-evening recital from Benjamin Powell. His impressive pianism was heard at its best in the initial item – Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX (finally completed in 1961), in which a wide range of expressive nuance (notably the never-quite-literal repetitions of the opening chord) went hand in hand with an absolute poise in the placement of detail. Powell had the measure, also, of Elliott Carter’s Caténaires (2006) – a miniature already bidding fair to become an encore staple, though its coursing linearity surely did not need to sound so breathless.
Inspired by watching the Goshawk in flight, Anthony Gilbert’s Third Sonata (1984 – ‘autour des palombes / goshawk’) began in a mood of poetic detachment that was dispelled but not intensified by the more demonstrative later stages, for all that Powell did justice to the music’s often-intricate textures. Scriabin’s Seventh Sonata (1911) should have suited Powell ideally, yet the formal precision (namely a subtly but never obliquely applied sonata form) by which the composer holds the seething atmosphere of his ‘White Mass’ in check was insufficiently realised – the potency of its central climax all but lost in so headlong an approach, and the final pages lacking any overriding sense of apotheosis. On the basis of this recital, Powell has no mean solo career ahead of him, though he might consider placing less emphasis on technical fluency and more on characterising the music.
The main evening recital was again divided between two pointedly contrasted ensembles. Even half a recital of bassoon and piano might be felt excessive, but the poise and finesse of Rosemary Burton readily held attention. She brought a strong sense of fantasy to John Casken’s Blue Medusa (2002), its evocative marine imagery tellingly realised in musical terms, then found an underlying continuity so that Graham Sheen’s Three American Sketches (2008) felt more than a technically adept travelogue – with the interplay of motion and intensity of the final ‘Nocturne-Toccata’ most impressively brought off.
The content of Graham Waterhouse’s Phoenix Arising (2008) was inevitably permeated by memories of his bassoonist father William (to whom this piece seems a fitting memorial); Burton was never fazed by the demands of what might be deemed a superior ‘test-piece’, though it was the eloquence giving way to energy of Anthony Payne’s The Enchantress Plays (1990) which made the most of the bassoon’s intrinsically musical virtues: qualities of which Burton, together with the always-admirable Christopher White, was fully aware in this fitting conclusion to a finely executed appearance.
Inevitably, though, the string quartet is a more diverse and involving medium – not least with the Solstice Quartet. Its account of Ligeti’s First Quartet (1954) had its rough edges and also occasional imprecision, but the sheer expressive fervour which the players invested into the ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’ that is the Hungarian composer’s reckless statement of intent left no doubt as to their motivation. This fine if often uncharacteristic piece has come into its own during the last decade, and it could have had few more persuasive exponents than the present performance.
The Solstice Quartet was hardly less ‘inside’ the compressed and often refractory idiom of Kurtág’s Hommage à András Mihály (1977) – the twelve ‘microludes’ that between them traverse a vast range of tone and texture so as to amount to far more than the sum of their fastidious parts. Preceding it, Giles Swayne’s Threnody (2007) suffused elements drawn from Mozart, Beethoven and Bartók into a charged miniature whose Shostakovich-like atmosphere was highly appropriate for a piece written in memory of the violinist and former member of the Fitzwilliam Quartet Christopher Rowland. After the Kurtág, the Solstice Quartet let go of any last inhibitions in a coruscating account of Joe Cutler’s Folk Music (2007), whose open tunings and frenetic syncopation ought to make it a favourite. Certainly it rounded off the Solstice Quartet’s contribution with electrifying effect.