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S & H Concert Review

Walton, Howells: The Lindsays, John Mark Ainsley, Kathryn Stott, Craig Ogden, Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 14th. (ME)


This stimulating concert was part of the South Bank's Walton Festival, arranged in conjunction with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and it certainly lived up to the aim of not only commemorating the music of a great British composer but awakening interest in some works which are all too rarely performed. The song cycle 'Anon in Love' for tenor and guitar was astutely paired with three songs by Herbert Howells, and these were in turn framed with two of Walton's works for quartet, the very early Piano Quartet and the sublime 2nd in A minor, as well as the 'Bagatelles' for solo guitar. Such a programme reads as though it might be a bit of a rag - bag, but in fact it was beautifully balanced and held the interest throughout.

Walton composed the Piano Quartet when he was only 17, and revised it many years later, still retaining its youthful vigour and simplicity; the influence of Ravel is obvious, especially in the last movement, and the Lindsays and Kathryn Stott played it with a real sense of close ensemble and confident articulation. Stott also accompanied John Mark Ainsley in the three Howells songs, taken from the 'Garland for de la Mare,' a work which deserves to be better known, since these settings of de la Mare's poems display his empathy with the voice to perfection. They are not great works of literature, but then neither are most of the poems which Schubert set, and Howells sets them in such a way as to convey their best qualities of melancholy introspection and subtle sense of time passing. No singer could be better suited to such music than Ainsley, and he sang them with his familiar sensitivity, producing beautifully sustained pianissimi at the close of 'Wanderers' and 'The Lady Caroline,' and shaping the phrases with sensuous grace.

Walton's 'Anon in Love' was dedicated to Peter Pears and Julian Bream, and is a set of sixteenth and seventeenth century poems unusually divided into two parts, the first three songs being romantically idyllic and the last three frankly bawdy in character; it's hardly surprising that the cycle is infrequently performed, since not only is the guitar's part a technically challenging one, but the songs require a certain kind of charm to bring them off - on this occasion, both guitarist and tenor were triumphantly successful. Few singers can utter such lines as 'I serve thee with my heart, and fall before thee' without sounding either coy or cloying, but Ainsley manages it due to the freshness and ingenuous quality of his approach; he obviously has no qualms about such sentiments, and he's right not to - these poems are the kind of thing you could imagine Pushkin and Tchaikovsky's Lensky to have written, so it's no surprise that this tenor, a cherishably romantic Lensky on stage, should be able to sing them without inducing a single cringe.

The second half of the set presents quite other challenges, since these frank little pieces need an openness and sense of intimacy with the audience which is the natural preserve of very few; Ogden and Ainsley managed them perfectly, actually raising genuinely open laughter at some points, notably the end of 'My Love in her attire' where the poet prefers his beloved 'When all her robes are gone,' a line Walton sets with sly wit and to which Ainsley brought his entire repertoire of raised eyebrows and winsome grins. These were very endearing performances of subtle mastery from the guitarist and truly idiomatic understanding of the poetry from the singer, and were hugely enjoyed by the audience.

The second half of the programme brought us the Five Bagatelles for guitar, written in 1970 for Julian Bream and dedicated to Malcolm Arnold. I have to say that solo guitar music is not my cup of Earl Grey, and it astonishes me that people do actually turn out in droves to hear an entire evening of such music; nevertheless, if one has to hear it, one could hardly hope for better playing than Ogden gave us, especially in the delicacy of the second piece.

The Lindsays returned for Walton's second String Quartet, the composer's first concert work after his years of movie soundtracks, and they played it with a fervour bordering on missionary zeal. Desmond Shawe - Taylor described the piece as having '.the familiar blend of harmonic astringency, rhythmic and contrapuntal ingenuity, and nostalgic meditation,' and it was that last quality which was most memorably demonstrated in this performance. The Lindsays are strongly associated with Beethoven's late quartets, and it was no surprise that their playing of this work brought both Op. 132 and 135 to mind, particularly the Lydian chorale movement of 132; the intense emotion, the poignant sense of loss, the wondrous slowness are all common to both pieces, and the Lindsays brought this out more clearly than I have ever heard. They also played the difficult Allegros with clarity and gusto, almost convincing us that this work is indeed one of the greatest in the repertoire.

Melanie Eskenazi

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