Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year Series 2010
Clare Hammond (piano)
John McMunn (tenor) & Christina Lawrie (piano)
Wu Quartet [Qian Wu & Matthieu van Bellen (violins), Matthew Kettle (viola) & Mgada Pietraszewska (cello)]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 12 January, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Purcell Room
If it is January, it must be the Park Lane Group’s New Year week of young artists and modern music at the Purcell Room. The format changes hardly if at all, but the standard remains reassuringly high.
Not least in this particular early-evening slot, with pianist Clare Hammond offering an eventful 45 minutes of scintillating pianism. She opened with Three Bagatelles (2008) that Giles Swayne wrote as part of his ambitious project to compose 100 pieces on the permutations of eight-note modes (memory recalls that John Foulds embarked on something not dissimilar in the 1920s but only completed a half-dozen; hopefully Swayne will have greater luck) – resourceful yet never overstated miniatures that are as much a test of technique as of the procedure in question. Stephen Oliver’s Study (1979) is an array of often-striking gestures that largely fails to cohere; at least next to two of Julian Anderson’s Piano Etudes – the Second (1995) with its play on the pentatonic mode and easing between metres, and the Third (1998) with its intricate interleaving of intervals and harmonies to evocative effect. A high-octane account of Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata (1949) concluded the recital: perhaps a little too much so in the opening movement and with a tendency to skate over the Adagio’s keen eloquence, but with formidable articulation of the scherzo’s heady passagework and a finale whose precipitous drive through to a hair-raising close fairly brought the house down. It will be worth hearing Hammond play this work at the PLG’s Barber Centenary Concert at Wigmore Hall on 15 March.
The main evening slot brought an unlikely yet worthwhile contrast typical of PLG. Tenor John McMunn set out his credentials in his native-American repertoire with two collections by William Bolcom. Five songs taken from the cycle “Briefly It Enters” (1996) were disappointing – partly because the vocal line often seemed merely to ‘set’ the thoughtful poems by Jane Kenyon and seemed less distinctive than the finely wrought piano-writing; or was it more that McMunn’s appealing high tenor sounded a little strained in its upper register, whereas Christina Lawrie’s pianism had all the making of a natural accompanist. Nor did McMunn seem entirely at ease with the equivocal take on traditional balladry that is Judith Weir’s “Scotch Minstrelsy” (1982), whose often biting humour emerged as too po-faced here. In this respect, McMunn was better suited to the more whimsical manner of “Three Auden Songs” (2008) by Huw Watkins, notably the capricious sentiments of the final setting, before coming into his own with five “Cabaret Songs” that Bolcom wrote from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. In particular, the deadpan comedy of ‘Black Max’ and camp pathos of ‘George’ was delivered as to the manner born; McMunn even covering-over his mistake in the order of songs with blithe self-assurance.
The evening’s other component was provided by the Wu Quartet – a capable ensemble that brought a stealthy humour and a teasing sense of anti-climax to Morgan Hayes’s Dances on a Ground (2009). A welcome revival of David Matthews’s Tenth Quartet (2001) found the players rather inhibited in the opening movement’s eloquent unfolding of its melodic material derived from four Australian birds, which presumably occasioned the prolonged re-tuning prior to a finale whose poised interplay between song and dance was more fully conveyed. It was only with the Third Quartet (1994) by Nicholas Maw, however, that the Wu members really came into their own. Like the Third Quartet of Britten, the work consists of five movements – though these are played without pause so that the wistful opening Moderato is confronted by a plangent Larghetto of audible folk-inflection (notable in the intense solo gestures), before two scherzos – a Presto of suppressed energy then an Allegro of coursing energy – make way for a closing passacaglia of powerful eloquence. Well received at its premiere by the Coull Quartet, the work cannot have had many subsequent performances but the Wu Quartet, despite passing problems of intonation, certainly had the measure of the work and could do worse than to champion its cause.