Hammers and Horsehair speak volumes – Douglas Mews and Robert Ibell

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
HAMMERS AND HORSEHAIR – Period Pieces for Fortepiano and ‘Cello


Douglas Mews – Fortepiano
Robert Ibell – ‘Cello

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 13th July

What a fascinating and splendidly-realised concept this was! With instruments able to reproduce authentic-sounding timbres and tones of a specific period, and with two musicians in complete command of those same instruments, and well-versed in the style of performance of that same period, we in the audience at St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, in Lower Hutt, were treated to an evening’s evocative and authoritative music-making.

Part of the occasion’s success was its mix of normal concert procedure with a distinctly un-concert-like degree of informality, of the kind that might well have been the case when these same pieces were premiered. Concert-halls of the kind we’ve become used to would have been few and far between at that time, and music would have more likely as not been made in private houses belonging to rich or titled patrons of the arts, often with connections to royalty.

Different, too, was the etiquette displayed by performers and audience members at these concerts. Until Beethoven famously made a point of insisting that people actually listen to his playing whenever he performed, those attending these gatherings often talked during performances if they weren’t particularly interested in the music or the performer or both, or if something or somebody else caught their fancy. Performers, too would wander into and through the audience talking to friends and acquaintances as the fancy took them, often interpolating extra items in their performances in the same spontaneous/wilful manner.

To us it would have seemed an awful hotchpotch, but audiences of the time would have relished the social aspects of the gathering, as much as (if not more so) than the music. While Douglas Mews and Robert Ibell didn’t actually encourage the people in the audience to talk or move around the church while the music was being played, each musician readily talked with us at various stages of the concert, the pianist inviting us to go up to the fortepiano at halftime and have a closer look at it.

But  before the concert proper actually began, Douglas Mews wandered up onto the performing area, sat down, and unannounced, began to softly play the opening of Mozart’s charming set of variations “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”, K. 265/300e, whose tune we know as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”. Audience members were still talking, and to-ing and fro-ing, while the music sounded softly, at first as background, and then, as people still arriving got themselves to their seats, and conversations gradually ceased, the music took over.  The fortepiano tones, at first almost apologetically faint and almost “miniature” in effect gradually filled the performing space as the variations grew more elaborate, and our ears became increasingly “attuned” to the instrument’s sound-world and its capabilities.

By this time the lights had been dimmed to the effect of candle-light, adding to the atmosphere of a time and place recreated from the past. Once the variations had finished, ‘cellist Robert Ibell welcomed us to the concert, encouraging us to imagine we were at a music-making occasion in the music-room of a grand European aristocratic house – though most of the concert’s music was written before 1800, Bernhard Romberg’s Op. 5 ‘Cello Sonata, published in 1803, pushed the time-frame into the early nineteenth-century). First up, however, was the winning combination of Mozart and Beethoven, being the latter’s 1796 variations on the former’s lovely duet “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from “The Magic Flute”.

What a joy to listen to these two musicians playing into one another’s hands so winningly and expressively, allowing the instrumental dialogues such eloquence and energy!  Though fortepiano and ‘cello were made at different times (the fortepiano in 1843, and the ‘cello from an eighteenth-century maker), their respective voices blended beautifully, neither dominating or overpowering the other. The fortepiano had more elaborate detailing than the ‘cello throughout the first handful of variations, the keyboard writing showing extraordinary inventiveness – one of the sequences featured a “sighing” cello figure over an intricate piano part, while another employed an invigorating running-bass on the ‘cello beneath garrulous keyboard elaborations.

Not all was “tally-ho and high jinks”, however, with variations 10 and 11 taking a sombre, almost tragic turn, the keyboard dominating the first of these while the ‘cello’s deep-toned lament garnered our sympathies throughout the second. All was swept away by the waltz-time final variation, delivered with great panache from both players throughout, including a couple of modulatory swerves and a cheeky reprise, right up to the deliciously po-faced ending.

Robert Ibell talked about the ‘cello he was using, an original 18th Century instrument gifted to him by his teacher, Judith Hyatt, and once owned by Greta Ostova, from Czechoslovakia, who came to New Zealand in 1940 to escape Nazi oppression, and eventually became a founding member of the National Orchestra (now the NZSO). The instrument’s rich bass and plaintive treble was very much in evidence in the brilliantly-written Sonata in G Major by Jean-Baptiste Bréval (1753-1823), composed in 1783 as Op.12 No 5, one of a set of six sonatas. A ‘cellist himself, Bréval wrote a good deal for the instrument, including concertos, sonatas and duets. The sonata gave the ‘cellist a real “work-out”, requiring the player in each of the movements to inhabit the instrument’s upper registers for a good deal of the time. It was a task Robert Ibell performed with aplomb, the occasional strained passage mattering not a whit in the sweep and excitement of the whole.

Introduced by his duo partner as “Hammers”, Douglas Mews then spoke to us about the Broadwood fortepiano he was using, previously owned by a family in the Shetland Islands, and brought to New Zealand by them in 1874. Perhaps the concert’s next item, a piece not listed as being on the programme, but one entitled “Song Without Words” by Mendelssohn, didn’t show off the instrument’s capabilities to its fullest extent, though both players certainly realized the music’s essential lyrical qualities in perfect accord, moving fluently through the pieces brief central agitations to re-establish the ending’s serenitites. I wasn’t sure at the time whether the piece was a re-working of one of the composer’s famous solo piano pieces, or whether it was a true “original” – but my sources have since told me it was a “one-off” written by Mendelssohn for a famous woman cellist Lisa Christiani (who also died young).

What did illustrate the Broadwood fortepiano’s capacities was the following item, Mozart’s Keyboard Sonata K.330 in C major. If ever a performance illustrated what was often missing from renditions of the same repertoire by pianists using modern pianos, then this was it (an exception being, of course, Emma Sayers’ Mozart playing in her recent recital). It wasn’t simply the instrument and its beguiling tonal and timbral characteristics, but the playing itself – though like philosophers arguing about the essential differences between body and soul, one can’t avoid conjecture and evidence illustrating a kind of “inter-relationship” between the two. So I felt it was here, with Douglas Mews understanding to such an extent the capabilities of his instrument that he was able to inhabit and convey the music’s character through these unique tones and articulations to an extent that I’ve not heard bettered.

Often so difficult to make “speak” on a modern piano, here Mozart’s themes and figurations straightaway took on a kind of dynamic quality that suggested something instant, spontaneous and elusive on single notes, and a ‘breathed” kind of phrasing with lines, sometimes explosive and volatile, sometimes sinuous and variegated. There was also nothing whatever mechanical about Mews’ phrasings and shaping of those lines, nothing machine-like about his chordings or repeated notes. I was struck instead by the music’s constant flexibility, as if the old dictum regarding rubato (Italian for “robbed time”, a term implying expressive or rhythmic freedom in music performance) – that it was the preserve of Romantic music and musicians – needed urgent updating to include all types of music from all eras.

Some brief remarks about the individual movements – the opening Allegro Moderato was played very freely throughout the development sequence, which I liked, as it gave the music a depth of enquiry, of exploration, and even of questioning, resulting in the music taking on an elusive and even enigmatic quality, contrasting with the exposition’s relative straightforwardness of utterance. The Andante Cantabile second movement maintained a kind of improvisatory quality throughout, including a telling ambient change for the minor key episode, one whose shadows were magically dissolved by the return of the opening theme. The player took an extremely rapid tempo for the finale, skipping adroitly through the arpeggiations, and creating what seemed like great surges of instrumental sound at certain points (all in context, of course – Douglas Mews said after the concert to me that he thought Mendelssohn’s music was as far into the Romantic era as the instrument could be taken, though we agreed that certain pieces of Schumann could work, rather less of Chopin, and hardly anything of Liszt….)

Bernhard Romberg (1767-1841) featured next on the programme with his Grand Sonata in E-flat Op.5 No.1, the first of a set of three. A contemporary of Beethoven’s, whom he met as a fellow-player in the Prince Elector’s Court Orchestra in Bonn, Romberg has achieved some dubious fame in musical history by rejecting the former’s offer to write a ‘cello concerto for him, telling Beethoven he preferred to play his own music. Commentators have wryly remarked that such admirable self-confidence was partly fuelled by Romberg’s inability to understand Beethoven’s compositions, but, judging by the charm, beauty and excitement of the work we heard played here, no-one need be put off from seeking out and enjoying Romberg’s music for what it is. It would be like neglecting the music of Carl Maria Von Weber, simply because he had proclaimed, after hearing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, that its composer was “fit for the madhouse”.

In fact Romberg, judging from contemporary accounts of his playing, was one of the great instrumental virtuosi of the early nineteenth century, exerting an enormous influence on the development of ‘cello-playing techniques. HIs qualities as a performer were, naturally enough, reflected here in the ‘cello writing – my notes contained scribbled remarks like “arresting opening flourishes, with attractive floating themes shared by both instruments”, “a soaring second subject leading to exciting runs from both ‘cello and fortepiano”, and in the development, “plenty of energy and excitement”. The Andante second movement had an almost fairground aspect with its musical-box-like tune, from which came a number of variations. Then, the finale took us out into the fields and along country lanes at a brisk clip, the playing dynamic and in places hair-raising in its virtuosity, especially on the ‘cellist’s part. There were even some Beethoven-like chords set ringing forth at one of the cadence-points, along with other individual touches, Douglas Mews bringing out in another place a lovely “lower-toned edge” to the timbres.

By this stage of the evening the wind outside was making its presence felt, with its moaning and gustings, and rattlings and creakings of various parts of the church roof – all adding to the ambience, I might add, and not inappropriate to the evening’s final item, Beethoven’s F-Major Op.5 ‘Cello Sonata, the first of two in the set. Amid all of the aforementioned atmospheric effects we heard a most arresting introduction to the work, the players seeming to challenge one another’s spontaneous responses with each exchange, building the tensions to the point where the reservoir of pent-up energies seemed to bubble over spontaneously into the Allegro’s sheer delight. With the development came some dramatic harmonic exploration (probably one of the passages which made the aforementioned Romberg feel uneasy), the music easing back into the “home-key” with the resolve of a navigator picking his way through a storm, at which arrival-point Douglas Mews hit a glorious wrong note on the fortepiano with tremendous élan, one which I wouldn’t have missed for all the world! The recall of the movement’s slow introduction and its just-as-peremptory dismissal were also treasurable moments.

THe players took a brisk tempo for the Rondo, notes flashing by with bewildering rapidity, Beethoven’s inventiveness in the use of his four-note motif astonishing! I loved the “schwung” generated by both players in the second, pizzicato-accompanied theme, and the wonderfully resonant pedal-point notes from Robert Ibell’s cello a little later, in the midst of the music’s vortex-like churnings (more disquiet from Romberg’s quarter, here, perhaps?). After some improvisatory-like musings from both instruments near the music’s end (even the wind outside seemed in thrall to the music-making at this point!), the coda suddenly drove home the coup de grace, fanfares and drumbeats sounding the triumphant return.

Douglas Mews and Robert Ibell plan to take this programme for a South Island tour later in the year, having already visited several North Island venues. I would urge people on the Mainland to watch all spaces for “Hammers and Horsehair” – a delightful evening’s music-making.