S&H Concert review

Czech Music Festival Royal Pump Rooms, Leamington Spa. May 2001 (CT)
Smetana Piano Trio in G Minor Op. 15 Sylvie Bodorova Piano Trio "Mediggo"
Dvorák Piano Quartet in E Flat Op. 87 The Schubert Ensemble of London Simon Blendis (violin) Douglas Patterson (viola) Jane Salmon (cello) William Howard (piano) (8 May)

Dvorák Quartet in G Op. 106 Janácek Quartet No. 2 (Intimate Letters)
Suk Piano Quintet in G minor Op. 8
The Janácek Quartet
with Petr Jirikovský (piano) (9 May)

In 1995, The Warwick Arts Society staged a Czech music weekend  in Leamington Spa celebrating the town's links with Czechoslovakia, which go back to the war years when members of the Czech Free Army were stationed in the town. This year's well-supported festival expanded the same theme with numerous Czech musicians present, notably the Janácek and Martinu Quartets.

The recently refurbished Royal Pump Rooms are ideally suited to chamber music, the concert room, with prominent marble work and ornate detail in the style of Leamington's predominantly Regency architecture, small enough to retain a degree of intimacy yet large enough to hold an audience capable of creating an atmosphere.

The Schubert Ensemble of London began with the elegaic Smetana Piano Trio in G Minor, written in memory of the composer's daughter, Bedriska. The intensely passionate opening was well captured by the group although I noted occasional balance problems between the violin and cello (an effect of the acoustic I suspect, the stage being set into a recess). As a result the cello was not always clearly audible in the texture. This was something that continued to trouble me at several other points in the work. The dance like passages were executed with spirit and the conclusion to the first movement powerful. The balance was less of an issue in the central Allegro ma non agitato which featured some delicate playing, the violin and cello complementing each other with poignant lyricism. The finale, Presto-meno presto, in many ways the strongest movement is telling in its anticipation of Dvorák and the players exploited the tonal and dynamic contrasts in an ending of considerable panache.

Sylvie Bodorova (b.1954) is a Brno graduate who has subsequently studying with Franco Donatoni in Siena and Ton de Leuw in Amsterdam. The language of her festival commission Piano Trio Mediggo was not overly complex or avant-garde. It was inspired by a visit to the Holy Land, immediately evident in the bold opening sequence of the first movement, Gilboa. A haunting piano solo follows, before the second movement, Via maris, brings complete contrast, with a sequence of plaintive solos and duets between the strings, which bore a strong Jewish influence. The final movement, Armageddon, makes use of vaguely minimalist sounding irregular rhythms and syncopations, and to my ears sat rather uncomfortably with the first two. The performance was however admirably committed throughout.

An infectious sense of enjoyment permeated the whole performance of the Dvorák. The opening Allegro con fuoco had considerable character, but it was the following Lento that was my lingering memory of the night, meltingly gorgeous with the return of the main theme played with heart rending simplicity on solo cello. The third movement, Allegro moderato grazioso, points forward to Suk at times and William Howard brought the occasional eastern influence in the piano part to the surface with consummate grace. The concluding Allegro ma non troppo brought the concert to a satisfying end apart from a brief yet touching encore by Korngold, with an apt reminder by William Howard of the Hollywood star's Czech roots.

For the final concert of the festival a full hall greeted the Janácek Quartet. Opening with the Dvorák Quartet in G Op. 106 the warm, sonorous sound which the quartet produced and which marked the whole performance was immediately evident. The delicate first bars were beautifully captured and the playing exhibited plenty of Czech character. My only reservation as the piece progressed was that there could have been a little more spirit in the playing although their concentration on balance and sheer beauty of sound went a long way to make up for this. There was a fine sense of atmosphere in the Adagio ma no troppo, with excellent contrast in the variations and a breathtakingly hushed conclusion. Once again in the Molto vivace scherzo there was a natural sense of character and crisp rhythm, although there could have been a little more abandon. The Finale (Andante sostenuto-Allegro con fuoco) had a greater sense of energy with a poignant transition into the final allegro.

In Janácek's Second Quartet the players truly excelled themselves in a performance of highly impressive dedication (no qualms about the spirit or energy levels here!). Written just months before the composer's death, one was able to feel every nuance in the constantly changing emotions and patterns of this extraordinary tribute to the woman Janácek loved. Although there was plenty of tenderness in the slower sections it was in the fascinating, characteristically motor like rhythmic writing that the quartet impressed me most. There was a feeling of communication between the players present in every bar and I was left with the impression that I had heard detail that was new to me.

The quartet was joined by Petr Jirikovský for the Suk Piano Quintet in G minor, an early work but gloriously tuneful and early evidence of Suk's great gifts as a melodist. Dedicated to Brahms as a result of the elder statesman's encouraging remarks, the turbulent opening, marked Allegro energico, gives way to a prominent viola part played with great style by Ladislav Kyselák, who had treated us to some particularly fine playing throughout the concert. The Adagio Religioso slow movement was wonderfully moving and I was particularly struck by a passage towards the end of the movement, hauntingly captured, which points very clearly to Janácek's later scores. The Scherzo: Presto was full of good humour and although in the Allegro con fuoco finale there were a couple of occasions where the piano was not always at one with the strings, the infectious enthusiasm of the playing was once again in evidence.

The concert formed a fitting end to an enterprising festival and it is to be hoped that next year's planned celebration of French music will bring an equally fine collection of music and musicians to the town.

Christopher Thomas

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