Reviews 2016/17

Monday 19 September
European Union Chamber Orchestra
Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet)

The audience at Penrith Music Club's first concert of the season were royally entertained by Crispian Steele-Perkins and the European Union Chamber Orchestra. It might be said that the programme was a collection of reasonably popular classics - one of the audience commented that Crispian Steele-Perkins must have played Haydn's trumpet concerto hundreds of times - but everything was played with a freshness and commitment that respected the music as though being heard for the first time. For all its classical tone, the music was full of emotion, drama and fun.

The suite of music for trumpet and strings by Purcell, ceremonial in tone and delivery, - the famous march being often used at weddings - contained a lyrical section for the trumpet which you don't hear very often, and Crispian Steele-Perkins topped these pieces by reaching for the stratosphere with a final clear note. Bach's 3rd Brandenburg concerto was then given a polished outing by a reduced ensemble. This was a performance that simply delighted in the music-making of what is effectively and oddly a two movement piece linked by a cadenza which Hans-Peter Hoffman relished playing with style.

Crispian Steele-Perkins re-joined the orchestra to play Haydn's popular and tuneful trumpet concerto, but not before he had entertained us by playing his garden hose, and an original, keyed trumpet, the spur for Haydn's composition. There followed a performance of consummate skill. Not only does Haydn's piece include the appropriate dazzling chromaticism, but it also requires agility from the soloist, with octave leaps and runs. Haydn's humour is also never far away, each movement of the piece having a still moment where the trumpet plays the rocking semitones that were a key feature and possibility of the new trumpet. Both the soloist's and the orchestra's enjoyment of this piece was infectious.

The second half of the concert belonged to the orchestra alone. Mozart's arrangement for strings of a piece originally intended for wind octet was played with convincing and detailed intensity, as the players worked their way through this dramatic piece. It required the players' constant concentration as this whole piece seems to stagger between contrasting episodes. Particularly noteworthy were the cellists' fast passages in the first movement. The influence of Bach's fugal writing was evident in the succeeding movements, giving each section their moment. The final triumphant variation of this piece was musically almost at odds with what had gone before, pointing up the drama of what had preceded it.

Walton's music for Laurence Olivier's set of Shakespeare films is generally rich in pastiche and the two string pieces from Henry V are no exceptions. Built on a simple ground bass, endlessly passed around the sections, this funeral march marks the passing of Falstaff and was affectingly played. 'Touch her soft lips' accompanies the coy meeting of Henry and the young French princess, and was played with perfect poise and balance by the orchestra, ending in an exquisitely perfect, resonant chord which no one wanted to disturb.

No pastiche was evident in Bartok's Romanian Dance suite, a set of 6 short pieces, full of earthy accompanying fifths and wistful tunes, with the central movement's high tune receiving refined playing from the orchestra's leader. The finale, however, allowed the orchestra to let go with a wild dance, again, beautifully controlled and held together by the ensemble - so good that we had to hear it again.

There are those that say classical music is boring and that concerts are dull affairs. Anyone who says that clearly was not there on Monday night, when the audience was treated to wonderful evening of music full of drama and joy.

Charles Ritchie

Monday 17 October
Sacconi Quartet
Robert Plane (clarinet)

The Sacconi Quartet and clarinettist Robert Plane performed an entertaining programme for the Music Club's second concert of this season - a good balance between familiar and lesser known pieces. The Quartet, founded at the Royal College of Music in 2001, impressed immediately with their unanimity of timing and phrasing, a quality that marks players who have worked together for years and developed a radar system that enables them to produce expressive and convincing music making.

Haydn's Quartet in G op.76 no.1 is a mature work from 1797; the Quartet understood and revelled in its vigour and humour, its dialogues and moments of serenity. First violin Ben Hancox led with fine rhythmic control and never dominated (as some quartet leaders are prone to); in fact in the slow movement there were times when he could have responded to the cello's conversational gambits more positively. Cellist Cara Berridge always created a firm rhythmic foundation for the ensemble and violist Robin Ashwell was impressive on his Simone Sacconi viola made in 1934. The lively minuet and surging finale were despatched with aplomb - Haydn in his most exuberant yet civilised mood.

For the rest of the concert Robert Plane, in sparkling form, joined the Quartet in quintets by York Bowen, Glazunov and Weber. For the first two the violinists swapped places and Hannah Dawson led the Quartet with authority. The most unusual work was York Bowen's Phantasy Quintet for bass clarinet and quartet, written in 1936. Robert Plane introduced the piece as the first for this combination of instruments and as an example of the one-movement Phantasy - a form revived in the early twentieth century by English composers such as Frank Bridge, William Hurlstone and John Ireland. The dark tone of the bass clarinet merged with the strings to lugubrious effect; the brooding late Romantic atmosphere at the outset returned at the end of the piece and in between moments of lyrical string writing and dramatic gestures created music of unusual pastoral appeal.

Russian composers at the end of the nineteenth century were fascinated with oriental art and music that emanated from Central Asia just over the borders of Southern Russia. Glazunov was one of several composers for whom Friday night was music night in St. Petersburg at the home of the wealthy arts patron Mitrofan Belyayev. The Oriental Reverie was just the sort of piece he might have taken along for a domestic performance. Its sinuous lines and colourful harmonies created a reflective space before the high jinks of the final performance of the evening - Weber's Clarinet Quintet, composed in 1815.

Weber's friend Heinrich Baermann must have been an extraordinary clarinettist to have performed this virtuoso piece on the comparatively simple instrument of the day. Bowen and Glazunov incorporated the clarinet into the texture of their quintets but Weber's idea was to show off its agility and tone colours - opportunities that Robert Plane took with great gusto and musicality. His was a performance full of vim, humour and lyricism - cascades of arpeggios and chromatic scales were tossed off without apparent effort; the result was a truly cheering tour de force.

John Upson

Monday 14 November
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
David Owen Norris (piano)

Michelangelo in Song was the title of Penrith Music Club's final concert of 2016. The distinguished operatic bass Sir John Tomlinson and pianist David Owen Norris were the artists in settings of sonnets of Michelangelo by Britten, Wolf and Shostakovich.

Michelangelo, renowned as one of the greatest artists and sculptors of the High Renaissance, devoted increasing time to writing poetry in the later part of his life. His sonnets, some 300 in all, reflect on the emotions involved in life, love and death in a highly personal way. Seated at a table, surrounded by old manuscripts and dressed in a painter's smock, Sir John presented a vivid account of the varied passions which inspired Britten, Wolf and Shostakovich to present their individual interpretations of Michelangelo's challenging and powerful poetry.

Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo date from 1940, at the outset of his career and the beginning of his musical partnership with the tenor, Peter Pears. Written for the unique timbre of Pears' voice, they were skilfully rearranged by David Owen Norris for the rich bass voice of John Tomlinson. Britten captures both the passion and the bitterness of love - the piano textures dramatic, supportive and often astringent. Both singer and accompanist captured the contrasting moods of these fine settings in a powerful and compelling performance.

Hugo Wolf's Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo were the last songs by this great lieder writer. Written in the lush romantic style of the late 19th century, they offer spacious piano textures and a wide range of emotion in the voice part, where the full range of John Tomlinson's powerful voice was equally at home in the demanding passages in its highest register as in the wonderful sonority of the deeper passages.

Shostakovich's Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarotti (1974) was also written near the end of the composer's life, and in some ways offers an affinity with events in the composer's own life, particularly in his difficult relationship with the Soviet state. Each of the eleven songs deals with a different topic: the power and asperity of the opening Truth gives way to the more relaxed mood of Morning while Wrath is a merciless tour de force for both singer and pianist, the pounding, percussive accompaniment driving the music incessantly. After the more reflective To the exile the hammer blows of Creativity are uncompromising and relentless. The haunting music of the start of Night and the resignation of Death, emphatically underlined by its piano postlude, led to the masterpiece of the final Immortality, where the poet looks back over his life and the piano offers a dry, brittle "nursery-rhyme" accompaniment - a sublime stroke of simplicity at the end.

Both Sir John Tomlinson and David Owen Norris have had long and distinguished careers and it was a privilege to hear these two fine artists in such a powerful and accomplished musical and visual performance. David Owen Norris dealt with the most demanding of piano textures with authority and sensitivity and the partnership between singer and pianist could not have been bettered. John Tomlinson's representation of Michelangelo was compelling, making full use of the stage area and offering insight into the conflicts within the poet's mind, while his interpretation of the emotions of the poetry enabled him to show the enormous power and range of his voice to the full. The English songs as encores - Vaughan Williams' setting of the folk song Whither must I wander and Frederick Keel's Trade Winds - sent a large and appreciative audience away in the knowledge that they had witnessed an awesome and very special concert.

Colin Marston

Monday 23 January
Trio Goya

The audience at Monday night’s concert given by the Trio Goya were magically transported back in time two hundred years, in a concert centred on music written for the then very new pianoforte. Hearing such music in its original context, the wood-framed piano with appropriately aged and strung violin and cello (that is, with gut strings), was a revelation. The piano did not dominate, nor the strings need to compete to be heard. To be sure, as the cellist Sebastien Comberti pointed out, his part often served to support the bass of the piano, whose otherwise delicate filigree sound was quite beguiling. Maggie Cole’s impeccable playing made the demanding scales and arpeggios, originally written, no doubt, to show off the composers’ skill at the new instrument, sound so natural and inevitable. Perhaps not surprisingly, Beethoven’s two sonatas, one each for cello and violin with piano, gave prominence to the piano part.

The programme consisted of near contemporary works by Haydn and Beethoven, the trios being composed within a couple of years of each other. While some characteristics, enjoyably brought out by the musicians, were common to both – sudden pauses and silence, skipping rhythms – there were also significant differences. The youthful Beethoven shows off his piano virtuosity, at the same time exploring different effects and harmonic progressions. The violin and cello often had very independent parts, while the scherzo was an exhilarating gallop, presaging the final movement’s main theme of rapid repeated notes, all of which was played with relish by the trio. Haydn’s trio, no less lacking in humour and panache, was more urbane in style, and was played skilfully and knowingly by the trio, not least in the sudden stops and pauses as well as the fugal sections of the second movement.

The two sonatas were both early works by Beethoven. Kati Debretzeni explained the use and effect of gut strings before launching into the first movement, which deconstructs its main theme and lurches with off-beat chords, before both piano and violin seem to tire of the whole thing. A trite fugue characterised the second movement before the finale’s fireworks.

The cello sonata was very different again, exploiting the darker sound of the instrument with more lyrical and chromatic passages. The second movement showed a wide range of expression, including passages which were simply held chords. Sebastien Comberti played this with sensitive expression it deserved.

But the pianoforte was the undoubted star attraction of the evening. A beautiful, sleek, wooden copy of one made in 1795, it was introduced by Maggie Cole, drawing the audience’s attention to the knee pedals and entrancing them throughout the evening with the magical, mellow sound that the instrument and her skill brought to the whole programme. This was a concert of classical charm and virtuosity.

Charles Ritchie

Monday 27 February
Benyounes Quartet

The Benyounes String Quartet is one of many fine young ensembles to have emerged from the Royal Northern College of Music in the last decade or two. Their programme for Penrith Music Club kept to essential repertoire from a thirty year period at the beginning of the nineteenth century yet proved a journey of wide contrasts. Haydn's last Quartet, written in 1799, was the culmination of forty years' inspired exploration of the string quartet; Mendelssohn's Quartet op.12, written in 1829, was a young man's venture into a new era of musical imagination. In between, Beethoven had defied convention and transfixed the musical world with his radical masterpieces.

So Haydn's op.77 no.2 made a civilised start to the concert, its lilting opening and conversational exchanges projected with poise and refined tone quality. Zara Benyounes led the quartet with complete musical commitment and was always able to create any mood - the humorous exuberance of the Scherzo and the serene gravity of the Andante were caught with engaging insight. The Quartet's considerable technical prowess brought clarity and excitement to the headlong finale. In all a most satisfying performance of Haydn at his greatest.

In 1810 Beethoven wrote just one quartet, but one which reveals his turbulent character in one of his most terse and concentrated works - the F minor Quartet op.95. The explosive opening was managed brilliantly with an outburst from all four players but with no hint of forcing the sound - positive attack combined with great tonal control. Beethoven's abrupt changes of mood brought moments of nostalgia and brief melodic passages that soon disappeared - quixotic changes that were sensitively realised . Pacing the steady tread of the Allegretto, injecting rhythmic energy into the Scherzo and driving the finale to its manic conclusion demonstrated impressive musicality from all four players

Finally Mendelssohn brought us to the brink of nineteenth century Romanticism. The opening of the E flat Quartet owed something to Beethoven but the Allegro immediately flowed with beguiling melodies that were ushering in a new age - music that invites players to indulge in a wide range of tone colours. Each player obliged with fine expressive playing. The whimsical Canzonetta had just the right poise and lightness for Mendelssohn in his Midsummer Night's Dream frame of mind; the Andante is a Song without Words that gave Zara Benyounes more opportunity to display her lyrical phrasing and solo voice. The finale showed all four players in sparkling form chasing Mendelssohn's high spirits throughout this moto perpetuo, that is until his surprise return to the calm reflection of the first movement. After so much excitement the quiet small voice of music ended this fine concert.

John Upson

Monday 20 March
Scott Brothers

Jonathan and Tom Scott (the Scott Brothers Duo) were the guest artists for Penrith Music Club's final concert of the present season. It is some forty years since the Music Club last had a piano duet concert (two players at one piano) and the concert made an exhilarating finale to an excellent season.

Rossini's William Tell Overture, arranged by Louis Gottschalk, set the tone for an imaginative and well-presented programme. This is one of Rossini's most descriptive pieces. The magical evocation of dawn and peace were in stark contrast to the tempestuous rhythms of the storm while Jonathan and Tom brought an electrifying power to the famous "uprising" music.

Schubert's Fantaisie in F minor is one of only a few original works actually written for piano four-hands. It was good to have the opportunity of hearing this fine work. The piece moves continuously through four sections: the haunting lyricism of the opening gives way to a more dramatic second section. A sparkling Scherzo leads to a final section in which the opening music returns in a spell-binding, beautifully-crafted finish.

Two arrangements of Spanish pieces by Jonathan Scott followed. The atmospheric tremolo effects of Tarrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra were followed by the pulsating syncopated rhythms and flamenco flourishes of Albéniz's Asturias.

In the 19th century, before the advent of gramophone and radio, piano transcriptions were popular as a means of hearing some of the rich wealth of orchestral music of that time. The opening movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony was one of the most popular of these and we were given a gripping and dramatic account of this fine music.

Max Reger's arrangement of Bach's Great Prelude and Fugue in A minor was one of the highlights of the evening. The improvisatory rhythms and florid fingerwork of the Prelude led to an impeccably rhythmic and sonorous fugue in which Reger explored the full range of the piano keyboard to recreate the colour and textures of the sound of the full organ. This striking arrangement of one of Bach's finest organ works was matched by a performance of absolute precision and purpose.

After this tour de force the audience was treated to the quirky brittleness of Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre and the warm, expressive lyricism of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, the concert ending with Liszt's spectacular Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 in C sharp minor.

Of all the 19th century arrangers of piano music Liszt was the most prolific and most demanding. The 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody covers an amazing kaleidoscope of moods. The folk rhythms of Magyar gypsy music grow ever more scintillating as the music progresses and the torrents of notes at its climax are completely breathtaking. This was a performance of consummate musicianship and wonderful rapport between the two players and a splendid end to a versatile and most enjoyable concert.

Jonathan and Tom's informative and entertaining introductions to the pieces were much appreciated by a large audience, the foot-tapping rhythms of Johann Strauss's Tritsch Tratsch Polka, played as an encore, sending them away happily into the cold March night.

Colin Marston