Archive for November 2007

The Brodsky Quartet and friends — ‘Close To You II’

November 28, 2007

brodskyweb.jpg‘Sex And The String Quartet’ is not a widely discussed topic.  However, one of the delights of experiencing chamber music live – as opposed to on record or on the radio – is the interaction between the players:  the vibes, the sparks, the knowing grins, the micro-dramas, the body language.

For example, the Wihan Quartet (see my previous post) consists of four men:  their work ethic seems to be ‘Come on, chaps – let’s roll up our sleeves and go for it’ (with immense musicality and sensitivity, of course).  Conversely, when I heard the Chilingirian Quartet play Dvořák all those years ago, the viola player was the lovely, pale (and pregnant) Louise Williams, and it was touching to observe the tremendously gallant way in which the other three (male) members of the quartet nurtured and cared for her (musically, I mean).

In the Brodsky Quartet, the female member is the cellist, Jacqueline Thomas.  Uniquely, the quartet plays standing up, except for the cellist (yes, I know – ‘you can’t get that under your chin’), so she sits, literally, on a pedestal, with the others standing around her.  The image that came to my mind was of an ice princess surrounded by adoring acolytes (not wishing to be sexist or ‘look-ist’, but Ms Thomas is a strikingly tall and elegant ash blonde – though with a nice twinkle).

To composer Martin Butler, however, the image that came to mind was slightly different:

‘I imagined the four standing players to be acting as sentries, standing guard, keeping watch over the seated cellist and patrolling their space – hence the title. Then a friend pointed me in the direction of the opening scene of Hamlet – with its sentries, its sinister and slightly surreal atmosphere, its ghost, its uncertainty and apprehensiveness – and the flavour of the piece was fixed.’

The resulting work, Sentinels (for the Brodsky Quartet plus an extra viola – tonight John Metcalfe) was arresting and powerful, more challenging than other works by Prof. Butler that I have heard.  Strong, clear, colourful, totally ‘thought through’ – very rewarding.  (if you’re reading this, Martin, I’m sorry not to have met you;  I’ve been listening to the Tin Pan Ballet CD continuously in the car for a month!  Brilliant.)

When you add extra players to a quartet, the number of possible interactions – musical and interpersonal – must multiply geometrically (xkcd must have something to say about this).  With the six players required for Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, you are more or less listening to a string orchestra.  I have never managed to warm to this late-Romantic-early-Schoenberg ultra-emotional piece, although I can see and hear its virtues (maybe, for me, it’s just because it isn’t by Richard Strauss).  The Brodskys and friends gave a glorious performance – rich, passionate, sonorous, nuanced – but it didn’t do it for me (nor for my companion).

Then, in the second half, Schubert’s String Quintet – that favourite of Desert Island Discs (and me, of course).  (more…)

The Wihan Quartet at Blackheath

November 25, 2007

wihanqt.jpgThere’s something about listening to chamber music at 11 o’clock in the morning – the mind is sharper and clearer, you can appreciate the music more, and find yourself picking up hints and connections that you might miss in the bustle of an evening.  (I received my education in the Dvořák string quartets thanks to an unforgettable Chilingirian Quartet cycle of morning concerts at the Cheltenham Festival some years ago.)

So – though groping through the fog of an incipient cold – a brisk walk up the road to Blackheath Concert Halls, to hear the Wihan Quartet in one of the Blackheath Sundays series.

Am I right in thinking there’s a historical connection here?  I believe the quartet takes its name from the great Bohemian cellist Hanuš Wihan, dedicatee of the Dvořák Cello Concerto (and cuckolded by a very young Richard Strauss), and Wihan played at Blackheath Halls a century ago?  The programme was silent on this point – along with other important information such as the names of the four players and the key of the Dvořák Op. 61 Quartet.

Anyway, the Wihan Quartet are local favourites;  the Recital Room was packed out.  The Quartet are four youngish gentlemen from Prague, all cast in the same amiable puppyish mould (no jokes about ‘bouncing Czechs’, please) – their mothers probably think they need haircuts.  All were dressed in black;  they sat with the viola on the outside, which makes for a compact sound with the cello at the heart of the quartet, as it should be.

Their sound tends toward the lean and stringy, though never less than beautiful, and they can do a magical hushed pianissimo;  tuning and ensemble were extraordinarily immaculate (I overheard my neighbour say ‘They breathe as one’, although they did follow their leader’s upbeat sniffs).

They began with the Mozart ‘Dissonance’ Quartet, K 465 – what a tremendous piece.  It’s one of the set of quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, and you could feel Mozart striving to show the older master what he could do.  I caught myself wondering whether the famous ‘dissonant’ introduction was a homage to the ‘Chaos’ at the beginning of Haydn’s Creation, with its C minor harmonic dead-ends and non sequiturs;  but of course the Haydn was later, so perhaps the influence went the other way.  It was also interesting to try and track the progress of seeds planted in the introduction as they took root later in the work – the crawling chromatic bass lines, the chugging quavers.  Who knows.  And the lovely octave second subject in the last movement sang out like a ray of sunshine.

Then came Cavatina and Moravian Dance, billed in the advance publicity as by ‘Panufnik’ so I was expecting the very wonderful and underrated Andrzej Panufnik, Polish refugee and denizen of Surrey.  But no, this was by Roxanna, his composing daughter.  She shares many talents with her late father, including an accessible idiom and an ear for colour, the ability to swim effortlessly between simple chords and atonality with no bumps, and a taste for jazzy and bittersweet harmonies (sometimes with chords simultaneously major and minor). 

The Cavatina (more…)

Dame Myra Hess at the National Gallery

November 21, 2007


Wait a minute, you say… that was way back, during the War, wasn’t it?  Well… Myra Hess has been brought back to (sometimes disconcertingly vivid) life, through the efforts of The Pianola Institute, in the persons of Denis Hall and our dear friend Rex Lawson – presiding modestly over the proceedings in their immaculate white tuxedos.

myra-hess.jpgTonight’s recital took place in the very room where Dame Myra gave her legendary wartime concerts, the octagonal Room 36 under the central dome.  Amazing sense of being in the presence of history – especially as the small but enthusiastic audience included some venerable guests who had known, and even performed with, Myra Hess;  and one grand old lady (we think Carola Grindea?) who persuaded her not to lock up her piano for the duration of the War, but instead to use her talents as a pianist to raise the nation’s spirits (rather than driving an ambulance ‘which other people can do’).   

With their impressive Duo-Art Pianola hooked up to a Steinway grand (the ‘pianola’ being a Black Box with 88 robot fingers pressing down the piano keys, and presumably with some robot toes for the pedals as well), Rex and Denis treated us to a feast of original piano rolls recorded by Myra Hess and her friends and colleagues – including Harold Samuel, Harold Bauer. and Myra Hess’s cousin Irene Scharrer (whose two electrifying Chopin Etudes were the highlight of the evening for me).  Dame Myra herself played Bach, Scarlatti (arr. Dukas!), Debussy and Szymanowski, and half a twee duet by ‘Burgmein’, who turned out to be the Italian publisher Giulio Ricordi hiding behind a pseudonym.

How’s this for synchronicity?  Two nights ago I was writing up Joshua Bell’s recital (see my previous post) and had a rant about Harold Bauer’s ‘rewriting’ of the Schumann violin sonatas.  Lo and behold, tonight we had Harold Bauer ‘in person’ playing a Schumann Novelette introduced by Denis Hall saying that Bauer had published a complete ‘improved’ edition of Schumann’s piano music, which was still worthy of pianists’ attention today.  Hmm.  Still, the playing was impressive.

Overall, (more…)

Joshua Bell at Cadogan Hall, Sunday 18 November at… er… 7 pm

November 19, 2007

red-violin.jpgAll did not go quite according to plan:  Joshua Bell (along with several of the audience) apparently thought the concert started at 7.30, not 7, so it was getting on for 7.20 when a slightly dishevelled-looking figure finally came on to the Cadogan Hall stage, along with the more impeccably turned out pianist Jeremy Denk, both dressed all in black and looking somewhat like a couple of über-cool twelve-year-olds.

Things were further muddied by a misunderstanding which had led all of us (including me, writing the programme notes, and poor Lisa at the Hall who booked him a year ago) to think he would be performing the Sonata by John Corigliano (1964), whereas Mr Bell insisted he was playing Grieg’s Sonata No. 3 instead.  His rather garbled explanation did little to clear things up.

Anyway, all negative impressions were erased when they started to play.  The Schumann Sonata No. 1 was terrific (a little early scratchiness aside), charged with energy and understanding, the beautiful conversational middle movement full of intimacy and wit. 

(Amazing that in 1945 Harold Bauer thought it necessary to ‘improve’ Schumann’s violin sonatas, correcting perceived errors in balance, texture and dynamics and even ‘touching up’ the harmony.  Even more amazing that, as recently as 1972, John Gardner commends these versions to performers ‘for serious consideration’  [in ‘Robert Schumann, the Man and His Music’, ed. Alan Walker, Barrie & Jenkins 1972]. 

Poor Schumann… of course, he wasn’t well, was he… so he needs a helping hand… can’t orchestrate, poor dear… has good ideas but doesn’t know how to get them across… 

Terrifying arrogance!  Just play what the man wrote, and let it tell you how it’s supposed to go!  Trust him, he’s a greater musician than you will ever be!  End of rant.)

Then came Beethoven’s last Sonata, No. 10 in G, (more…)

‘Colonel Ellis’

November 16, 2007

Gwynne 1907 

This is our maternal grandfather, Thomas Gwynne Ellis, MBE, FLAS (1887-1953).

Happily, this is not a Remembrance item, as he survived the Great War (but was apparently shell-shocked).  He was a part-time soldier (Territorial Reserve) in the Royal Wiltshire Imperial Yeomanry when this picture was taken (the reverse is inscribed ‘Gwynne 1907’), but worked as Estate Manager to Lord Methuen at Corsham Court in Wiltshire.  Our mother was born in a cottage on the estate.

He was mobilized in 1914, and served as an Instructor and in the 11th Reserve Cavalry before being commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery, Special Reserve, posted to fight in 187th Siege Battery in France from November 1916 to the end of the War.  He operated as an aerial photographer, going up in fragile biplanes to take pictorial records of battlefields, trenches, targets and shell holes.  This must have been an unbelievably hazardous occupation.

We (my mother and I) gave some of his photographs, and other documents such as postcards from France, Top Secret maps, and a copy of the ‘Wipers Gazette’, to the Imperial War Museum.

Until I saw this photo and the postcards I hadn’t realised that he was known (and signed himself) as Gwynne, which I am proud to say is my middle name.

He had an (more…)

MySpaced out!

November 13, 2007

I am now on MySpace (yeah, I know — jumping on the wrong bandwagon — everyone in the UK is on Facebook now!  6.5 million people, that’s 1 in 10 of the ENTIRE population…).  But now I have a way to keep in touch with some dear new-found friends. 


Anyway, do feel free to drop by at .  If you’re on MySpace as well, maybe add me as a Friend, or send me a message.  I will probably eventually set it to Private, but for now anyone is welcome!  Thanks.

 For future ref., the link is in my Blogroll [hate that word!], to your right.

We Shall Remember Them

November 11, 2007


The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
  There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
  And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.
There’s chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
  And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
  And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.
I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
  The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
  And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.
But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
  And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
  The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

From A E Housman – A Shropshire Lad.  Housman’s poems were published in 1896 and referred to the Boer War, but they were seen as prophetic of the Great War, and many a soldier carried a copy into the trenches.

In a Remembrance Day programme on BBC Radio 3 this morning, Jeremy Sams played a setting of this poem by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who died on the Somme.

Update, 2010:  here is an audio file of the Butterworth setting, sung by Christopher Maltman (from a BBC Music Magazine CD):

What’s the most beautiful car of all time?

November 8, 2007


The (London) Telegraph has been inviting suggestions for ‘the most beautiful car of all time’.  If  you are at all interested in cars, or aesthetics, or the history of design, it’s worth a look — here’s the link:  What’s the most beautiful car of all time?

bentley.jpgThere is obviously a UK bias, but American cars and exotics are in there too (Cord 810, Facel Vega…).  I must say I was genuinelycitroends.jpg surprised to find myself (so far) in a minority of one for proposing the name of Honda;  the general consensus seems to include Citroen DS, Jaguar E-type, vintage Bentleys. and various Aston Martins, Lotuses (Loti?) and Alfa Romeos (Romei?) past and present – none of which I would disagree with.

What emerges is that it’s difficult to separate abstract ‘beauty’ from other factors such as nostalgia, envy or pride of ownership.  One or two commentators point out that there are very few new cars in the list, in this age of computer-aided design.  Speaking as someone who likes to drive a car that ‘looks like a car, not a jelly-mould or a steam iron’, I second that. 

That new Alfa does look nice though.

There are some odd, and downright silly, suggestions (Morris Minor?  Renault 4?), and some that stir forgotten memories. std_61_renault_floride.jpg

Oh – I’ve just thought of that beautiful Renault in the 1960s – what was it called?  Floride?  Caravelle?

But I think my favourite has to be ‘Any car driven by my wife!!’


Parry: Nonet

November 6, 2007


 On Sunday afternoon (somewhat the worse for wear after driving 400+ miles to Bradford and back for a quintet gig and a curry – thanks, Jo T – but that’s another story) I joined some friends for a play-through of the Nonet in B flat by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918).  Not sure whose idea this was, or who had the music;  it’s scored for a slightly unusual wind combination of flute, oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns.  (Why?)

First impression was of an effective, well-written, energetic and colourful work, often in Parry’s vein of heroic maestoso familiar from Jerusalem, I Was Glad and Blest Pair of Sirens, but not descending into bombast, over-long in places but interestingly put together, with cyclic use of themes (the Scherzo has the same tune as the first movement, the last movement recycles themes from all the previous ones).  He’d been listening to Wagner, too – one ‘Tarnhelm’ chord shift straight out of Rheingold…

I didn’t know the piece, and didn’t have a chance to look at the blurb in the score, so can’t tell you much about it.  The most obvious influence seemed to be Richard Strauss – the most directly comparable work (in the same key) being Strauss’s early Suite in B flat, Op. 4;   but – and this is the most surprising fact about the Parry – this can’t have been an influence, as the Parry dates from 1877, seven years before the Strauss.  (Could the 20-year-old Strauss have heard the Parry?  No.  Although Parry was 29 when he wrote it, he was pretty well still unknown at the time, certainly outside England — and the Nonet was never performed in his lifetime.)

There’s a recording of the piece on Hyperion.  If I can track it down perhaps it will tell me more.  An interesting find.

We also (more…)

November 1, 2007


Thanks to a post on FOUND I now have another source of endless time-wasting…  Thank you, ‘Jordan B. in Rapid City, Mich-gan’. — check it out.

They are mostly not funny and not clever — the sheer humdrum ordinariness of them is totally hypnotic.

Have a nice day.  I’m supposed to be out shopping!