Festiva Piano Quartet playing for keeps at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace Season of Concerts 2010

MOZART : Piano Quartet in G Minor K.478

MAHLER – Piano Quartet in A Minor

BRAHMS – Piano Quartet No.3 in C Minor Op.60

Festiva Piano Quartet: Cristina Vaszilcsin (violin), Peter Garrity (viola),

Robert Ibell (‘cello), Catherine McKay (piano)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Tuesday 9th March

I can think of no higher praise for the playing of this group throughout the present concert than expressing the wish to hear them tackle, one day, (with the help of another violinist) a favourite work of mine, the Cesar Franck Piano Quintet. That’s not to say that I don’t want to hear them in other repertoire as well – in fact, one of the features of this concert was how completely and unselfconsciously the musicians found the style and voice of each composer’s music throughout the evening. To the Mozart work they brought strong, well-focused contrasts – dark and sunshine, tension and gaiety – knowing just when to “grip’ the music and when to relax. The relatively unfamiliar Mahler Quartet Movement was given concentrated and committed advocacy, with singing lines and deeply-dug intensities from all concerned, while the Brahms work added to the playing tensile strength and intellectual vigour, realising the music’s remarkable synthesis of romantic feeling and iron-wrought discipline.

I mention the Franck Quintet, because I couldn’t help being frequently reminded of it throughout the latter part of the concert, especially during the Festiva Quartet’s wholehearted tackling of the Brahms work – though Franck’s language and thematic constructions are of course quite different to Brahms’ in this Quartet, the works share a fair degree of nineteenth-century “sturm und drang”. No less heartfelt was the musicians’ approach to the Mahler, whose often feverish effusions in places put one even more in mind of the Belgian composer’s candidly-expressed outpourings. Again, the playing brought out the character of the music in each case, I thought, emphasising in Mahler’s work a certain febrile quality in some of the writing, while informing the Brahms Quartet with richer, deeper-throated tones, bringing out a more layered and complex web of expression.

First up, however, was the Mozart Quartet, the key of G Minor promising, as with other works from this composer, a vein of dark, agitated feeling colouring the music. So it proved, the players making the most of the music’s contrasting moods, the opening filled with foreboding and unease, and the second subject light and tripping, with some nice flashes of musical temperament in violinist Cristina Vaszilcsin’s work. It was playing that made the repeat a real pleasure to experience, as one could focus on different aspects of the music-making – the strong rhythmic support from Robert Ibell’s ‘cello, for example, and the clear, sparkling lines maintained by pianist Catherine McKay. The development’s surge and flow was nicely realised, the strands of melancholic feeling well-activated, with intense dialoguing between violin and viola (Peter Garrity), and an almost Beethovenian strength coming out in the piano part.

In the slow movement, the piano-and-strings exchanges exhibited grace and tender feeling, the violinist negotiating her extended “running” solo with deft elegance. The group generated great “schwung” in the finale’s concerted passages, the piano taking the spirited lead, and the individual strings allowing themselves some “glint” when negotiating their separate lines, occasionally setting against this lovely trio-voicing moments during softer episodes. The players enjoyed the work’s “teased-out” ending, Mozart treating us to a few bars of remote modulation before returning to the home key for a grand finish.

Mahler’s Piano Quartet Movement came from a work written when the composer was just 16, the rest of which he later destroyed, apart from a few bars of a Scherzo. It remains a fascinating glimpse of a “composer-in-gestation”, one whose characteristic fingerprints are already discernable. The piano-dark, brooding opening, with its repeated emphasis on a three-note motif swung between lyricism and angst, building up towards lines of running counterpoint, with every instrument singing its own song. The three-note motiv dominated the music’s central section, driving things to fever pitch in places, and creating what seemed like an unstoppable tide of impassioned feeling – full credit to Catherine McKay for her full-blooded pianistic flourishes, and to the strings for their similarly-expressed energies. The music and the playing continued to enthral, throughout contrasting episodes of exhausted calm (voices singing atop of murmuring piano chords), quickening tensions with occasional major-key flirtations, and exotic colourings (a gypsy-like violin solo leading a valedictory processional – very Mahlerian!), right to the hushed pizzicato ending.

But it was the Festiva’s playing of the Brahms Op.60 Piano Quartet which capped off an evening’s remarkable music-making. Big-boned playing, with full-bowings and richly dark piano tones captured the work’s opening, and made the contrast with the second subject markedly “tell”, the piano’s lyrical reflections answered with real depth of feeling, real “hurt”, conveyed by the rest of the ensemble. In places I could almost feel the players listening intently to their own interactions, while in others I had a sense of playing-for-keeps risk-taking, close to the edge of abandonment, as the music surged and seethed through the development. The performance had the feeling of a soul taking stock of its own strength after intense tribulation, and renewing its journey through sheer will.

The scherzo’s tricky syncopations were played with glint and fire and real “point”, with a dynamic range encompassing everything from a roar to a whisper, and a  storytelling impulse able to realise the suggestion of headlong flight with demons in pursuit. By contrast, the slow movement’s various instrumental combinations wrought magical results, ‘cello and piano beginning, followed by violin and ‘cello, and then violin and viola, each pair adding a different strain of feeling to the melody, whose eventual dying autumnal fall at the close evoked an atmosphere so beloved of this composer. The group caught the agitations of the finale’s opening, strings pounding in three against the piano’s four (and then swapping around!), the second subject’s hymn-like respite being overtaken by the restless opening music, the turbulence surging and abating throughout the development – exciting playing from all concerned! Catherine McKay’s emphatic march-like piano chords triumphantly proclaimed the hymn-like tune’s affirmations on its return, though to conclude the composer resolutely led the argument through a further agitated flurry and into the autumnal regions once again, the players determinedly and assuredly going with the music’s flow and delivering the final chords with proper and characteristic gruffness.

The muicians received an enthusiastic and well-deserved ovation from an audience whose enjoyment would, I’m sure, have helped spread the word regarding these St.Andrew’s concerts, in the wake of such exciting and involving performances.

Festival Jazz at St.Andrew’s

Tessa Quayle Jazz Trio / Claude Bolling – Jazz Concerto

Tessa Quayle sings Jazz Standards with Ben Wilcock (piano) and Alistair Isdale (double-bass)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace March Concerts

Tuesday 9th March

Claude Bolling – Concerto for Classical Guitar and Jazz Piano Trio (1975)

Matthew Marshall (guitar) with Anita van Dijk (piano), Paul Dyne (bass) and Roger Sellers (drums)

St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace March Concerts

Thursday 11th March

That old cliche “A time and place for everything” came to my mind while listening to and enjoying jazz singer Tessa Quayle’s cool and laid-back delivery of a selection of jazz standards at a St.Andrew’s lunchtime concert. As much as I thought her singing, and the playing that accompanied her efforts from the other members of her Trio, thoroughly expert and professional, I found myself wanting more from the experience. Had Tessa Quayle chosen Cole Porter’s “It’s all right with me” as one of her numbers, I think I would have been able to put my finger on what was lacking for me at the time – “It’s the wrong time / it’s the wrong place….” I feel sure that the singer’s extremely relaxed and loose-limbed style and deportment would have worked marvellously in a bar or nightclub or cabaret or theatre, and, just as importantly, at night (or in a setting that suggested a nocturnal ambience). It simply didn’t seem the right ambience at St.Andrew’s for the songs to fully work on and be worked upon. In retrospect I felt the need for a more atmospheric and quasi-theatrical environment, with dim lighting, drinks and (dare one say it in these nicotine-unfriendly times?) a touch of cigarette smoke to create the appropriate mood for such music and its performance.

Jazz singing suggests a kind of generic style described by words such as those I’ve already used – cool, laid-back, relaxed, and so on – but given the circumstances and physical surroundings of the concert, I wondered whether the performers needed more than that on this occasion. Without the “trappings” the focus was very much on the singer, and, to a lesser extent, on the trio as a whole; and I thought their music-making, when put under such scrutiny, somehow lacked real intensity. Seldom during the performances did I sense the musicians were “transfixed” or totally absorbed by what they were playing – and, of course, I freely admit in relaying this impression the fault could well be mine through inexperience of this style of music and performing. However, I could imagine performances of these songs conveying heartfelt emotion across a range of feelings – and I suspect that this just wasn’t Tessa Quayle’s style. What she and her musicians did would have obviously suited some of the songs admirably; but across the span of an entire concert I couldn’t help feeling a sameness regarding the ever-so-noticeable detachment she brought to each song. Perhaps I needed to sit closer up, to give the visceral possibilities a better chance – though I suspect that such connection wasn’t what these performances were about.

The concert began with Sonny Burke’s “Black Coffee”, the singer a bit difficult to hear at first, though as “the pitch of the hall” was established, my ear became accustomed to her sound, enough to appreciate the agility of her wordless vocalising in “Bernie’s Tune” originally an instrumental by Bernie Miller. I liked “Autumn Leaves” with its high bass work and nifty exchanges between singer and pianist, and the ear-catching rhythmic irregularities of Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud” with its 4 versus 3 rhythms. However, I found myself wishing for a more gutsy, abandoned feeling from the singer in “Come on Home”, though I liked her similarly wry delivery of “Anthropology”, which she referred to as “Charlie’s Anthropology”, presumably by way of tribute to Charlie Parker. “Nica’s Dream” was notable for a marvellous piano solo from Ben Wilcock, but a real highlight was the duo “Come Rain or Come Shine” (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer), the musicians free and flexible at the beginning, and generating real “swing” towards the end. Finally, there was the quizzical, sometimes declamatory “Moanin”, with its Negro-spiritual-like feeling, activated again by fluent and mellifluous piano and bass improvisations and easeful teamwork among the trio.

Perhaps one day I’ll get the chance to hear Tessa Quayle sing in a different setting, one in which she’ll more readily ignite those performance sparks which her amazingly rich and varied experience as a singer so far indicates she’s capable of. An enjoyable concert, then – but leaving less of an impression that I’d hoped it would. I confess to having fewer initial expectations from a second concert at St.Andrew’s involving jazz musicians, one involving classical guitarist Matthew Marshall and a jazz group, the work being Claude Bolling’s Concerto for Classical Guitar and Jazz Piano Trio. One of a number of “crossover” works by Bolling, written for classical guitarist Alexander Lagoya in 1975, it made an attractive if uneven impression on me, through no lack of committed advocacy from Matthew Marshall and his cohorts – like a lot of “other genres with classical” works it did best exploring its “own” territories, its jazz rhythms and timbres, and was at its weakest when trying to imitate “classical” styles and gestures (rather like Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and almost every jazz-inspired mix with classical forms ever since).

Parts of the work I found surprisingly involving and interesting, such as the first movement’s Hispanic Dance in 5/4, bluesy in places, Spanish in others (owing a lot to Rodrigo) – the blues episodes reverted to 4/4 in a kind of “trio” section, before driving back to the 5/4 rhythm, and just before the end “stressing” the patternings differently, to exhilarating effect. I also liked the third movement’s busy fugal scamperings, the instrumental lines nicely dovetailed before Anita van Dijk’s  piano “jazzes up” the patterns, inspiring the double bass (Paul Dyne) to take the lead, after which guitar and piano resume their dialogue, all very Bachian, with a nice rallentando ending. Matthew Marshall’s solo guitar work was in evidence at the beginnings of at least three of the movements, by turns improvisatory, and strongly rhythmic, each evoking a different kind of sultriness, then in the work’s finale, generating exhilarating pace with rapid scamperings, contriving with the piano to produce a “Saint-Saens” kind of ending, brilliant and flowing. Pianist Anita van Dijk skilfully recovered her poise after seeming to lose her way  momentarily in this movement, in time to support her drummer, Roger Sellars, letting off percussive firecrackers towards the end of the work, and with the others, gathering in and winding up the threads with a grandly ascending flourish.

Entertainment, enjoyment, and food for thought regarding music, times and places….