Peter Barber (viola)
Mary Barber (piano)
Annabel Cheetham (mezzo-soprano)
Music by Schumann, Bridge and Franck
Cambridge Terrace Congregational Church WELLINGTON
30th October 2009
This splendid concert took its name from the title of a song by Robert Schumann, “Stille Liebe”, one of the twelve “Kerner-Lieder” written during the composer’s “year of song” (1839-40). Tonight’s performance of the whole set of these songs by mezzo-soprano Annabel Cheetham and pianist Mary Barber was merely one of the pleasures to be had from a most enjoyable evening’s music-making. More Schumann came from the brother-and-sister duo of Mary Barber and violist Peter Barber, a transcription for viola and piano of Three Fantasiestücke Op.73. The second half of the concert featured firstly a full trio of musicians performing Frank Bridge’s Three songs for mezzo, viola and piano, then concluded with another transcription for viola and piano, that of Cesar Franck’s A Major Violin Sonata. I was familiar with Franck’s own version for ‘cello of this work, but the viola transcription was one that I’d not heard before.
This was one of an enterprising set of concerts organised by the Caprice Arts Trust, a series that deserves the widest possible support for the innovative programming and the calibre of the artists involved. In some ways it was extremely pleasant to experience music-making of such immediacy and vitality in an intimate venue attended by a smallish number of people; but on the other hand it was a pity that more people hadn’t got to hear about the concert, so that something more of an audience “buzz”could have been generated (though we did our best to show our appreciation at the appropriate moments!).
Schumann’s Three Fantasiestücke Op.73 began the concert in fine style – is there another composer whose music so identifies its creator within a bar or two, regardless of the work? It’s such a distinctive sound-world, at one and the same time so focused yet equivocally suggestive, the sounds infused with imaginative possibilities. This was a lovely performance, the viola bringing a richly varied array of nuance to the discourse, the partnership with the piano opening up the composer’s beloved “other realms”, some sombre and deep, some infused with glowing light. The musicians achieved what gave the impression of a seamless flow of sound while realising all of the music’s subtle detailings. Particularly remarkable was the soft playing from both instruments, the phrases able to “speak” with particular eloquence, employing a marvellous variety of gently-expressed tones. Although not note-perfect, the music-making unerringly captured the composer’s uniquely poetic vision of an inner world.
More Schumann came from mezzo-soprano Annabel Cheetham, with Mary Barber again at the piano. The twelve “Kerner-Lieder” owe their name to the poet, Justinus Kerner, whose verses with their strong leanings towards the individual’s oneness with nature brought a ready response from the composer – the opening “Lust der Sturmnacht” (Pleasures of a stormy night) immediately plunged us all into the “sturm und drang” of romantic sensibility, bringing forth exciting and committed singing and playing. I found Annabel Cheetham’s tones a shade raw in such places throughout the cycle, probably exacerbated by the liveliness of the acoustic in a smallish listening-space. But there was so much to enjoy, especially when the music required poetry and graceful utterance, the singer’s committed response able to make the words “sound” so meaningfully, and impart a real sense of story – the sequence from No.4 “Erstes Grun” (First Green) to No.6 “Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes” (To the drinking glass of a departed friend) in particular featured delightful interplay between singer and pianist, the last-named song a highlight of the cycle, with its ready evocation of true friendship and rueful philosophy, and with the piano most excellently “mirroring” the singer’s heartfelt utterances.
After the interval the trio of musicians gave us Frank Bridge’s Three Songs for mezzo, viola and piano (the composer played the viola in the English String Quartet for a number of years), a performance which again worked better in the quieter moments, the singer able to demonstrate a beautifully focused quality in places such as the second song’s setting of Matthew Arnold’s words “Fold closely, o nature, thine arms round thy child”, and the more ruminative utterances of the final Heine setting “Where is it that our soul doth go?”, all deeply-felt and extremely touching, with viola and piano weaving plenty of magic around the voice to telling effect.
Peter Barber described the final item on the programme, the Cesar Franck Sonata, as “jacket-removing music” – he then proceeded to delight the audience, who had been admiring his colourful bow tie during the evening, by revealing identically-hued trouser braces, a nice touch of flamboyance in keeping with the overt romanticism of the music to follow. As with the ‘cello version of the sonata, compared with the violin’s silvery voice, the deeper-toned viola brought out many differing perspectives to the music, the most obvious being a smokier, more sombre voice resembling that of a maturer, more worldly-wise lover, whose terms of endearment used rather less outward emotional “juice” but expressed more shades of layered meaning and equivocation. Peter Barber negotiated the instrument’s occasional switching between violin-voiced mode and the deeper hues of the larger instrument with great skill, while pianist Mary Barber let the piano-writing unfold so beautifully throughout the whole of the movement, her rich, arpeggiated chording seeming to transcend the instrument’s mere “upright” status.
The second-movement brought forth a big-boned imposing manner, relying more on depth of tone than surface brilliance to generate momentum, an approach that held back from the usual virtuoso pianistic roar, and created a far more detailed soundscape, enabling more give-and-take of musical substance than is sometimes evident between the players. I thought the recitative-like exchanges in the middle section had a very “charged”, almost theatrical quality in this performance, which contrasted beautifully with subsequent outbursts from both instruments, together and separately. The coda was beautifully prepared for, here, less of an impulsively orgasmic virtuoso cataclysm, and more of a roughly-wrought struggle against great odds from which the players triumphantly emerged at the end. Something of that “charged” quality informed the slow movement’s performance as well, some beautiful high work on the viola matched with eloquent lyricism on the piano, even if in places a touch of stridency in the playing indicated the extremes suggested by the music’s expression. Finally, the last movement underlined the “hand-in-glove” nature of the musical partnership throughout, with strong, forthright statements of the canonic theme from both players adroitly giving way to “running” sotto voce passages, beautifully realised. A brief rhythmic mishap at one stage was of no matter, as the final statement of the theme magically stole in and grew like a magnificent double archway, through which the last excited measures scampered, the players at full stretch and the notes a bit splashy, but the ending leaving us exhilarated and extremely satisfied. Great stuff!