JOE CONWAY reviews last week’s classical concerts, with high praise for CUCO and the Endellion String Quartet.
Endellion String Quartet, 20th October 7.30pm, West Road Concert Hall. £21/£19/£12
There’s no doubt about it – the 20th century has finally arrived in the concert hall. This programme of string quartets by Haydn and Beethoven played by the Endellion Quartet had as its centre-piece Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet. The dates of the three works will explain what I mean. Haydn’s Opus 33 was written in 1781, Beethoven’s Opus 59 in 1805, and the Shostakovich in 1960.
Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable to interpolate a ‘difficult,’ relatively modern piece into a high-classical programme. Nowadays it’s not only acceptable, it’s welcome. For reasons which aren’t difficult to understand the Shostakovich stole the show at this concert. This isn’t to knock the two well-loved classical quartets, especially when played by the Endellions with so much insight and grace.
But Shostakovich’s best-known quartet has a quality of immediacy and urgency which the classical repertoire inevitably lacks. Like most of Shostakovich’s work it has an extreme agenda which clamours for attention.
The music is as autobiographical as any ever written, beginning with the composer meditating on the musical letters in his name – D, E flat, C and B. This theme pervades most of the score, together with self-quotations from Symphonies 1 and 5, and the first Cello Concerto.
From the first sighing whispers of the fateful initials to when they return to conclude the work 20 minutes later, the Endellions got right under the skin of the music. There was hysteria in the Jewish-inflected theme of the second movement, mockery in the tormented third movement waltz, savagery in the fourth, and suicidal bitterness in the finale. Poor Dmitri, you couldn’t help feeling…
As I say, none of this takes away from the performances of the two classical quartets. The Haydn B minor is full of surprises, starting in the ‘wrong’ key and – a surprising link with Shostakovich – having dance movements placed second and third in the batting order. The Endellions were even more at home with the first Razumovsky Quartet. Long lyrical lines in the first movement and one of Beethoven’s quirkiest scherzos were among the goodies on offer.
Britten Sinfonia, 22nd October 8pm, West Road Concert Hall. £29/£24/£15
The world premiere of a new work involves a huge amount of preparation. Hundreds of hours go into writing the piece, scoring it and, if it’s a concerto, consulting with the soloist. Then the score and parts need to be produced and the solo part learned. All this is before rehearsals begin and the first performance takes place.
This is the kind of intense preparation that will have preceded the premiere tour of James Macmillan’s Oboe Concerto, played by Nicholas Daniel and the Britten Sinfonia, and conducted by the composer. On an occasion like this the composer will be looking not just for accuracy and virtuosity from the soloist but commitment and empathy too.
It’s good to report that Nicholas and James worked hand-in-glove to achieve an exemplary performance of this demanding work. Composer/conductor, soloist and orchestra were at one in putting the piece across with maximum impact. Which is why it is so sad to write that, for me at any rate, it was a complete waste of time and resources . . .
An extreme reaction? Maybe, but here are my reasons. Throughout the concerto’s 20-odd minutes there wasn’t one sustained lyrical solo. There was nothing one could sing, recall, or internalise. And this in a piece for oboe, an instrument which excels at penetrating, poignant melodies.
Instead the instrument was used to convey the kind of frenetic virtuosity one associates with fading jazz saxophonists. A falling third, often played as a tremolo, may have been intended to bind the work together. But in the absence of anything much else in the way of repetition, the concerto gave the impression of a string of unrelated episodes with no discernable formal scheme.
Still more unsatisfactory was the musical language. Written in an atonal-twilight manner with occasional bursts of tonal sunshine, the concerto communicated about as much to me as a lecture delivered in Mandarin. The popular success of composers like Part, Gorecki and Tavener suggests that there’s no law that says contemporary music must get more dissonant, jarring, and incomprehensible with every year that passes. Nor that brownie points are any longer dished out for obscurantism and inaccessibility.
Bizarrely the concert had begun with an electrically-charged performance of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, an arrangement for string orchestra of the quartet played by the Endellions and reviewed above. So that once again Shostakovich’s tortured masterpiece provided the most compelling experience of the evening.
Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra, 23rd October 8pm, West Road. £16/£13/£5
At last, a concert at West Road that wasn’t dominated by Shostakovich! Perhaps because this first CUCO concert of the season was an all Beethoven programme . . .
It got off to a brilliant start with a scintillating performance of the Prometheus Overture. Conductor Toby Purser is exciting to watch and secured a rhythmic and appropriately fiery performance, especially from the CUCO strings. Seated in the continental fashion with second violins on the conductor’s right, the fiddlers actually had time to fit in their semiquavers and tremolos because of Toby’s well-judged speeds.
In the Eroica Symphony later in the programme his tempi were a bit more wayward and it’s fair to say that almost all the main themes were a tad slower at subsequent appearances than at first. The exception was the scherzo which received a near perfect straight-through-line performance and included some georgeous horn playing in the trio section – mellow toned, naturally phrased, breath-taking.
Between the two orchestral works CUCO was joined by Tom Poster who gave a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. There was no in-your-face virtuosity or bravura here but a disarmingly modest and elegant interpretation, deeply poetic, and oozing artistic integrity. Highlights were the wonderful cadenzas in the outer movements which are like fantasies or even mini-sonatas in themselves. The perenially original slow movement gave the CUCO strings an opportunity to show off their delightfully resonant glossy tone.
CLASSICAL GIGS OF THE WEEK
MONDAY 25th OCTOBER 8pm, West Road, Fusae Takahashi (piano)
TUESDAY 26th 1.10pm, West Road, Julian Azkoul (violin), IAS piano quartet
WEDNESDAY 27th 1pm, Emmanuel URC, Alyssa Ralph (violin & piano), Linden Ralph (cello & piano), Irena Radic (piano)
FRIDAY 29th 1.10pm, Kettle’s Yard, Tom Morley (tuba), Alex Berry (piano). 1.10pm, Mumford Theatre, Poppy Beddoe (clarinet), Victoria Nicoll (cello), Damian Thompson (piano). Catherine’s, 6pm, Kellaway Chamber Music Concert. 6.30pm, Robinson, Robinson Music Society Concert. Zoology Museum, 8pm, Carmen Elektra Opera Company
SATURDAY 30th 1pm, Emmanuel URC, Lucy Cavendish Singers. 6.30pm, King’s, Chad Kelly (organ). 8pm, West Road, CUMS 1. 8.30pm, King’s, Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Dante Quartet
SUNDAY 31st 1.15pm, Fitz Museum, Mulberry Piano Trio. 6pm, John’s, John Challenger (organ)