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  Howard Blake and Haydn: Howard Blake, Jeremy Young (pianos), Sam Walton (marimba), Edinburgh Quartet (Tristan Gurney, Philip Burrin (violins), Michael Beeston (viola), Mark Bailey (cello), St Andrew’s Church, Alfriston, Sussex, 29.7.2009 (BBr)

Haydn: String Quartet in G, op.64/4 (1790)
Howard Blake:
Spieltrieb, String Quartet in one movement, op.594 (2008) (world première)
Violin Sonata, op.586 (1973/2007) (first public performance)
String Quartet in D, The Lark, op.64/4 (1790)
Howard Blake:
Diversions for marimba and piano, op.439a (1985)

Thank goodness for Howard Blake! This is, without doubt, what the very attentive and appreciative audience at tonight’s show was thinking as they listened to some of the most attractive and satisfying music written in the last 25 years.

Alfriston Summer Music is now in its fourth year and this show was part of a week’s music making which takes place in the beautiful 14th century church in this idyllic English country village; each year Jeremy Young and Daniel Bhattacharya present chamber music in the most delightful surroundings you could imagine. The church is ideal for performance for it isn’t too reverberant – it’s a small building (only 115 feet by 70!) – and there is a real feeling of intimacy which chamber music craves. I wish I could have stayed and heard more.

Tonight’s concert was given in honour of Blake’s 70th birthday and it was a happy choice to pair his work with that of Haydn, surely one of the wittiest composers who ever put pen to paper. The Edinburgh Quartet gave two Haydn Quartets with exactly the right spirit, pointing all the humour – and there is much humour in these works – and delighting us with their delicate touch in this music. Most enjoyable was Mark Bailey’s relishing of Haydn’s fantastic cello writing, but theirs was a true ensemble performance, all four members of the quartet working together in superb accord. Blake’s new quartet Spieltrieb, commissioned by the Edinburgh Quartet to celebrate its 50th anniversary, was given a magnificent performance. It’s not often that one hears a première of such assurance and commitment. Spieltrieb is a concise work, playing for about 16 minutes, but within that short timespan there is much event – including a superb pizzicato scherzo of great virtuosity and, best of all, a coda to melt even the hardest of hearts, ending in the purest D major. This is a major addition to the quartet repertoire and it is to be hoped that it will be taken up by many groups in the near future.

The Violin Sonata is a big, bold work; the outer movements are predominantly fast, but within their framework there is a multitude of emotions and moods. The slow, middle, movement begins and ends as a valse triste which encloses a passionate outburst. Tristan Gurney gave a very assured performance in which he was partnered by the composer.

The Diversions for marimba and piano, an arrangement of a work for cello and orchestra, ended the concert in very high spirits, the audience being both fascinated by an instrument which seldom finds itself in the spotlight and by a work of great wit and vitality. Sam Walton is a soloist of outstanding virtuosity and Jeremy Young played the piano part with great aplomb.

It says much for the quality of both the music and the music making that at the end of the concert many members of the audience wanted to stay and chat with the performers about what they had heard. If this is what Alfriston Summer Music is all about then I hope to return and experience it again.

Bob Briggs


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