Here was something quite extraordinary. I have posted a review before (Friday 19th October 2018) about the Nicholas Yonge Society which holds five chamber music concerts each year in Lewes. Well this time they really excelled themselves. Normally the N.Y.S. concerts are performed by quartets or trios which often carry a group name (for example the Vision String Quartet and the Notos Piano Quartet who play their next two concerts) and play together regularly. I suppose what we had here was more of a “supergroup” (think Crosby, Stills, Nash and …….no, don’t, but you get my meaning). Loosely billed as “Matthew Hunt and friends” we had four of Britain’s finest musicians coming together to perform an unusual and, as it turned out, extremely exciting programme. Matt Hunt is, among many other things, the solo clarinettist of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. Louise Hopkins (‘cello) is an internationally renowned soloist and chamber musician as well as being Head of Strings at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Alasdair Beatson (piano) likewise is a prolific soloist and chamber music player and is director of the Musique a Marsac festival in the Pyrenees. Alina Ibragimova is one of the most accomplished violinists of her generation and has appeared as a soloist with many of the world’s great orchestras. She was made an MBE in 2016. I first saw her perform live at the Tetbury Festival with the Chiaroscuro Quartet of which she is leader and a founder member.
When doing my homework prior to the concert I somehow expected that the works in the first half would be a sort of light hors d’oeuvre before the substantial main course after the interval. Not so. We began with Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie for clarinet and piano (1910). It was written as a test piece for the Paris Conservatoire. It is fiendishly difficult. In one fast section the clarinettist must play all seven keys using only the little fingers. According to Matt Hunt it was originally accompanied by a shorter Petite Piece to be sight-read. He and Beatson had tried it that morning. “We both failed!” he said. Well, they certainly passed muster in the concert. Rhapsodie fluctuates between the atmospheric, lyrical style most people today expect from Debussy, and raucous faster passages. The piece is titled the “first” of its type in Debussy’s oeuvre. What a pity he never completed the planned second one, intended for saxophone. It would have been ideal for a modern player of that instrument such as Jess Gillam.
This was followed by (in my opinion) a little known masterpiece – or at least it sounded like one in the hands of these musicians. Ravel was composing his Piano Trio in A minor in the fishing village of Saint-Jean-de-Luz just south of Biarritz in the summer of 1914 when the First World War broke out. He finished it in five weeks and then volunteered for military service. Like Messiaen (see below), he was unable for medical reason to fight and, in Ravel’s case, at first became a nurse’s aid and then drove a munitions lorry, often under heavy fire. To what extent the piece is influenced by world events is a matter of some conjecture. Perhaps the arch-shaped third movement which starts quietly on solo piano and builds to a crescendo then recedes back to the solo piano might be a reflection of war itself – though of course Ravel would have had no knowledge of what a different kind of war was just beginning. The first movement draws on Basque dance forms and fluctuates between lyrical beauty and loud violent passages for violin and ‘cello. The wonderful second movement is entitled Pantoum and is named after a Malaysian verse form in which two themes are interlocked and this interlocking is achieved musically with a whole range of effects with extravagant bowing and pizzicato techniques adding to the excitement. The fourth movement follows the third almost without a break and again there are very difficult effects for all the players, with which they coped with great aplomb.
Then, after the interval the full house (the musician’s reputations ensured this) readied themselves for one of the great challenges of the classical repertoire, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1940-41), and it is something of a challenge for the listener too. Messiaen, like Ravel, was ruled unfit for an active role as a soldier (in this case in the Second World War) and served as a medical auxillary. Nevertheless he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp, Stalag VIII-A at Gorlitz. There he found a ‘cellist, a violinist and a clarinettist and he wrote a trio for them which gradually evolved into this monumental work. The composer uses different musical scales (see the Wikipedia article on “Modes of limited transposition”) and many of the movements have no time signature. This last may evoke the “End of Time” referred to in the title but it could also be about the Book of Revelation which inspired the work together with the wartime circumstances of its composition. Other things may disconcert. The first (of eight) movements has a strong basis in bird song, with the clarinet representing the blackbird and the ‘cello the nightingale. Messiaen gave religious titles to each movement and these are accompanied by his written notes to the performers such as “transpose this onto a religious plane and you will have the harmonious silence of heaven”. The composer also had synaesthesia in that he saw colours when he heard music. This is also reflected in these notes with e.g. “in the piano sweet cascades of blue-orange chords”. Also, because of the gradual composition of the piece, only four of the eight movements are actually for this unusual quartet. The third is for solo clarinet, the fourth is a violin, clarinet and cello trio, the fifth a ‘cello/piano duet and the eighth similar for violin and piano. This is hard for both performers and listeners to come to terms with. And much of the piece is very slow. Pianist Steven Osborne writes about the slowness that “one has to alter ones sense of pace………and follow a broader beat that is so slow as to be almost unbearable.”
So how did our intrepid four cope with these demands? With wonderful playing. Memorable moments included: the loud piano chords (blue-orange?) in the second movement; the astonishing contrast of loud and soft from the clarinet in the third (a Messiaen calling card) and the unusual melodic interlude, almost Indian in feel, in the fourth. Then there was the slow and thoughtful, wondrously expressive bowed ‘cello in the fifth and the unison drum roll rhythmic effects in the sixth. Finally the ten minute long violin and piano finale of the eighth movement with thoughtful, intense violin playing of the highest order. Time almost seemed to stand still. After a long silent pause, the ovation. We were exhausted but exhilerated, and so it seemed were these very special musicians when we passed them in the corridor on the way out (this isn’t the sort of venue that has dressing rooms). Man about Eastbourne’s classical concert of the year? I know it’s only January but it could well be. (*****).