Endymion at Blackheath

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Up the road again this morning, to a Blackheath Sunday concert by ENDYMION (who seem to have misguidedly adopted a new logo which plays fast and loose with the Greek alphabet – no doubt a source of great distress to linguists everywhere, who are still trying to recover from ‘TOYS “YA” US’.  You’re not called ‘SNDPSMIPHN’, are you?  Well then).

The Burghers of Blackheath remain a mystery to me.  Some Sundays, they will collectively decide the concert is not for them, and there may be just a couple of dozen people huddled in the recital room.  Today they were out in force – almost a full house, chattering excitedly.  The average age seems to be about 150 (where will the next generation of audiences come from??), so there was much clattering of sticks and whistling of hearing aids before the music began.    Thereafter, however, you could hear a pin drop (well, actually you could hear an infuriatingly running tap or overflow somewhere, which didn’t get turned off until the interval).

The Endymion Ensemble (founded in 1979 by my dear friend, bassoonist John Whitfield), used to be resident at Blackheath Halls, with an office in the lobby.  Good to welcome them back.  Today’s incarnation consisted of Michael Dussek (piano), Krysia Osostowicz (violin) and Stephen Stirling (horn) – who, if I am not mistaken, was playing in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House yesterday – busy fellow.

Beethoven’s last Violin Sonata (No. 10 in G, Op. 96) is so blithe and laid-back and generally un-Beethovenian that you catch yourself wondering ‘What did he mean by that?’  Nick Breckenfield’s programme note describes the first movement as ‘an intimate, relaxed, long-breathed soirée’ – which is nice.  His theory is that the Sonata was a ‘therapeutic’ response to Beethoven’s stormy relationship with the mysterious ‘Immortal Beloved’.

Krysia Osostowicz played the Sonata with an expression that flitted between rapt concentration and a beatific smile.  In the past, her sound has sometimes seemed to me to be a touch lean and stringy, but not today – rich, secure and expressive.  Perhaps she has a new fiddle?  For once, the Hall’s priceless jewel of a Bösendorfer grand sounded too plummy for Beethoven.  Maybe put the lid on the short stick (i.e. half open)?

Then we had György Ligeti’s Trio (1982) – strong meat for Blackheathens, one would have thought.  Stephen Stirling prefaced the performance with a helpful explanation of the ‘out-of-tune’ natural harmonics Ligeti calls for.  Lacking the dizzying shock value of those early Ligeti pieces (Atmosphères, Adventures, Volumina, Requiem) that made such an impact on those of us who were lucky enough to be around to hear them in the 1960s (including Stanley Kubrick, who nicked them for the soundtrack of ‘2001’), the Trio marks a step back towards (relatively) more traditional sounds.  As such, it is an altogether worthy tribute to Brahms (commissioned for his 150th birthday), and the Brahms Horn Trio in particular. 

Occasionally I felt – as in the Bagatelles for Wind Quintet and other pieces – that Ligeti was dressing very simple thoughts in New Clothes of dazzling technical complexity.  But generally the work achieved what it set out to do.  Krysia Osostowicz obviously relishes a challenge:  the harder the music, the more she dug into it with a smile of determination and enjoyment – particularly in the mad ‘Caribbean Balkan’ folk dance of the second movement.  Stephen Stirling, on the other hand, played everything with unflinching coolness, as if it were all a piece of cake to him (which evidently it was).

On paper I wondered if four movements might be one too many.  In practice, however, Ligeti kept the interest going from start to finish.  Bravo Endymion, and bravo Blackheath for giving it a chance.

After the interval, the Brahms Horn Trio.  What a lovely piece – I can forgive Brahms a lot for this and some (not all) of his other chamber music (the clarinet and violin sonatas, for example, and those songs for choir, horns and harp that were on Radio Three this morning).  One can almost imagine Schumann writing this, with its bipolar mood swings from manic hunting-horn intensity to hushed mourning.  Once again, it might seem that four movements were one too many;  but in performance the non-developing first movement acts as a prologue, and the thematic connections between the other three movements hold the attention (helped by Stephen Stirling’s ability to keep right out of the way when it isn’t his tune, thus avoiding the horn tone becoming too wearisome on the ear).

I haven’t mentioned Michael Dussek, which in a way is the highest praise!  Self-effacing but characterful, rock-solid yet with a sense of fun, his piano playing was terrific, as always.

A great experience for a Sunday morning.  Thanks!

Now I’m going to watch some birdies (it’s the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch Weekend).

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