The Castalian Quartet - l to r: Daniel Roberts, Sini Simonen, Charlotte Booneton, Christopher GravesIn February Christopher Graves brought Alison Rhind to St Peter’s Church to perform a joint piano and cello recital. This time (Sunday, November 20), Christopher brought more of his friends - friends who have formed the Castalian Quartet.
Having started their training variously in Helsinki, France and Britain, they graduated together with Masters Degrees in Chamber Music in Hannover in 2014, the year they released their first recording to considerable critical acclaim. Just recognition came quickly.
They won the First Prize at the 2015 Lyon International Chamber Music Festival, and have developed an extensive repertoire and an impressive range of bookings. They are a group on the ascendant, and we were very privileged to welcome them in homely Saint Peter’s since they were to play the same programme later in the week in a grander setting in Frankfurt.
The evening began with Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. It is the only string quartet he wrote. It was written in 1903 while he was still one of Faure’s students at the Paris Conservatoire. It opens with a sweeping, delicate adagio movement, like gossamer shimmering in a gentle breeze - beautifully and delicately played.
The second movement has another sweeping melody batted from one instrument to another, the remaining members of the ensemble playing pizzicato for much of the time. Ravel was imitating the sound of gamelan music from South East Asia, being one of many artists profoundly influenced by eastern music at the turn of the last century.
This is followed by a slow movement, the plangent musical lines delicately shaped and played with immense intensity. The work concludes with a fast and furious movement with the theme introduced in the first movement rising above the agitated playing of the lower strings. This was a superb performance, full of energy and intensity. The subtle changes in dynamics and abrupt shifts in rhythms were adroitly conveyed.
The second work in their concert, Four Quarters by Thomas Ades had been written for the Emerson String Quartet and first performed in 2011. Thomas Ades studied music at King’s College Cambridge. He is an accomplished pianist and was runner up as BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1990. However it is as a composer than he is better known. He is now Benjamin Britten Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music and has written a wealth of both orchestral music and a series of operas.
Never slow to incorporate new ideas, his ‘Polaris’ is written for piano, orchestra and five video screens! This work, ‘Four Quarters’, requires less demanding resources, but is technically very challenging.
The work is a time sequence, each movement exploring a different stage of the day. ‘Nightfalls’ is quite remarkable. The upper four instruments playing a series of high pitched individual notes interacting with one another over the steady continuo of the cello. Tiny droplets of crystal, sparkling like stars: a brilliant portrayal of the vastness of the heavens. ‘Morning Dew’ is almost entirely played pizzicato, the whole movement finishing with a series of upward-sweeping octaves.
The last movement ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’ was quite amazing. The rhythmic sequences are very complex and into their mathematical pattern is woven a wild dance-like fury, slowly dying away until the fragile harmonies give way to complete silence.
This was stupendous playing by a group of musicians who revelled in the musical and technical opportunities which Ades had provided. The audience was left utterly amazed both with the virtuosic playing, but also at the complexity and compositional ingenuity which the music had portrayed.
The second half of the programme was devoted to Brahms’s String Quartet No 3 in B Flat. This was music that fitted within the ‘frames of reference’ which the audience recognised! It is a lovely piece in which the first movement begins with a series of hunting calls followed by a pastoral rocking theme, in which Brahms uses his ever-favourite two time signatures at the same time.
The third movement, an adagio, consists largely of a wonderful and languid viola solo. It is written as a waltz, but the music is surprisingly dark and tormented. The clouds clear for the last movement, a Finale in the form of a theme and variations in which the initial hunting theme from the first movement plays a significant part.
The diversity of mood in these movements was subtly expressed and the viola playing was really lovely. The group played as one, the eye-contact being ample evidence of how melded they are as chamber players.
What a concert! Three dramatically different works from three different centuries and different musical traditions, one of which took us out of our ‘comfort zone’. They gave us great pleasure - their warmth of personality and their musical skill appreciated by us all.
The Quartet are: Sini Simonen (violin), Daniel Roberts (violin), Charlotte Booneton (viola) and Christopher Graves (cello).
Dorothy Collins as Emily LancasterWe’ve all heard of ghost ships, right: The Flying Dutchman or the Mary Celeste, drifting at sea with no living crew on board?
Well, on Saturday night - for one night only - Bristol’s ss Great Britain became a ghost ship, or rather a ship possessed by the ghosts of its passengers, each with a gruesome story to tell.
During a seemingly normal guided tour of the vessel, we encountered a number of spectres, who offered an alternative history than the familiar “the longest ship of the period” and “she crossed the Atlantic in 14 days”.
(It’s worth remembering, of course, that the Brunel’s famous ship has its own back-from-the-dead story to tell: being retired 40 years after its 1845 maiden voyage, and scuttled in 1937 before – in 1970 – limping back to the Bristol dock at which she was built, to be restored to her former glory.)
Some of the ghosts – portrayed marvellously by young actors in a joint production with the Bristol Old Vic – were based on historical characters. Others were embellishments, or their fates imagined.
The first ghost our tour group met was Mrs Gray, the wife of celebrated merchant fleet captain John Gray. Gray commanded the ss Great Britain for 18 years before disappearing in mysterious circumstances on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Being on a ship, there was no way for the news to be communicated to shore, and the first Mrs Gray knew of her husband’s demise was when the ship docked. Clad in funereal black, our Mrs Gray (Stephanie Kempson) was doomed to spend eternity at the dockside, waiting for her husband to return.
Hal Kelly as The ButcherOn the dry dock we met nursery rhyme-singing Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins), one of the passengers to succumb to an outbreak of smallpox on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Her tale was a sad one, and told us a lot about the treatment of steerage class passengers, but was she really cast into the sea not yet dead, as her ghost suggested? And did her mother really not shed a tear?
In the ship’s galley we met The Butcher, played by Hal Kelly. His story was based on a diary entry from a passenger, which told how a drunk butcher had stuck a pig in the wrong place, and the bleeding beast had run around the ship for half an hour. But in our story, the butcher’s motives were reinterpreted as psychopathy, as the slaughterman revealed how he had learnt to prolong, and relish in, the death of an animal.
There was more psychopathy in the first class dining saloon, where bored passengers played by Julia Head and Matt Landau gorged themselves on a banquet while discussing killing animals to relieve the boredom of their voyage. But after a rat, a cat, and a fellow passenger’s Labrador, what could they torture next? Their eyes turned to the children on the tour – it was played for laughs but suffice to say the little 'uns were holding their parents’ hands a little tighter as the aristocratic apparitions pursued our tour group down the corridor with carving knives.
The Wealthy Dining Couple played by Julia Head and Matt LandauWe also met brides (Jenny Davies and Faye Bishop) a traumatised Crimean soldier (Scott Bayliss) and Sister Benedict, played by Kirsty Asher, a nun struggling with the conflict between her wrath at the immoral women sharing her third class accommodation and succumbing to one of the seven deadly sins.
This event could have been reduced to a common jump-out-of-cupboards fright fest, and I was glad that it was not. Like the best horror stories, the grisly yarns woven by the passengers of the ss Great Britain stayed with me long after I had left the dock, and was tucked up safe in my own bed.
Photographs by John Rowley courtesy of the ss Great Britain Trust
An-Ting ChangThe first of the fifth series of Brilliant Young Musicians in Saint Peter’s Church began in great style (Sunday, October 23) with a recital given by the young Taiwanese pianist An-Ting Chang.
Chang graduated in 2007 from the National Taiwan University, majoring in chemistry. However she chose a career in music, studying in London at the Royal Academy of Music, where she is still a PhD student in performance practice. Not content with developing a career as a pianist, she has begun experimenting with music and multimedia, through the ‘Concert Theatre’ she has created.
With all the music in her programme relating to the natural world, Chang called her recital, ‘The Carnival of Animals’. She began with Robert Schumann’s studies known as Papillons. Written when Schumann was but twenty years old, this group of twelve delicate miniatures floats past us like butterflies on a hot summer day.
Some of the butterflies are brightly coloured, in major keys, while others are portrayed in more sombre minor keys. These were all played with the rich variety of mood which they deserve.
This was followed by the evening's first appearance of the cuckoo: Le Coucou written by the French baroque composer and harpsichordist, Louis-Claude Daquin. Originally a movement from a harpsichord suite, we heard the distinctive two-tone call of the cuckoo recur endlessly in a variety of keys. This was a very robust cuckoo, portrayed with real vigour and technical skill.
Chang followed the butterflies with a very different piece, The Maiden and the Nightingale, by the twentieth century Spanish composer, Enrique Granados. This describes a love-torn maiden singing mournfully to the sound of a nightingale.
Her plangent song, based on a folksong from Valencia, is replete with Spanish rhythms, and redolent of a sad event played out on a warm summer’s night in Granada, with the song of nightingales filling the air.
Played caressingly by Chang, it was a dramatic contrast to her next choice - the Flight of the Bumble Bee composed by Rimsky-Korsakov for orchestra. This version for solo piano was transcribed by Sergei Rachmaninov. It is a virtuoso display of semi-quavers played with huge enthusiasm and technical skill. This was an angry bumble bee, not to ignore!
From an irritating and potentially malevolent insect Chang led us to the river bank with Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Die Forelle - The Trout - the introductory song in Schubert’s much loved song cycle. This version is surprisingly troubling.
Of course, there is the description of the trout lurking in a millstream on a summer’s evening, but Chang’s powerful playing made much of the blood-curdling battle between the fisherman and the trout, killed, inevitably in cold blood.
What a contrast to Debussy’s Poisson d’Or, from his Images Book II. This is a much more placid piece, perhaps inspired by the sight of a goldfish swimming monotonously in the security of its bowl - its gilded scales flashing in the light.
In reality it is claimed that the piece is inspired by two golden fish on a Japanese lacquer panel, which Debussy owned. Even he was swept up in the huge interest in the Orient, which dominated early twentieth century taste. Two well-known Chopin waltzes followed.
These may well have been familiar, and lacking a little in sensitivity. However, I doubt whether anyone in the audience was aware that the first, the Minute Waltz, had been inspired George Sand’s dog, chasing its own tail, while the second was inspired by George Sand’s cat, Valdeck, the yearning long notes imitating the sound of cats.
The first half ended with Aaron Copland’s The Cat and Mouse, taking its cue from one of La Fontaine’s Fables. There was much energetic playing as the turbulent relationship between the cat and mouse is played out. There were brilliant musical flourishes, and the final pleading chords of the mouse left much to the imagination. May be the mouse did get away...
After the interval we were treated to the whole of Daquin’s Troisieme Suite, of which Le Coucou had been a taster. This time though it was LA Coucou, the same music, but played with a gentle femininity - in contrast to the raucous mate heard in the first half. The suite ended with a lovely rondo, La Tendre Silvie, played with all the tenderness and love the work demanded.
The concert finished with Le Carnival des Animaux, undoubtedly Saint Saens’ most popular work. Originally written for a variety of instruments, this version was adapted for solo piano by Chang herself. There was the familiar cast list including another cuckoo! This one, though, exhausted after performing so much this evening, is calling in a rather ‘tired’ minor mode. If only cuckoos were so commonly heard in rural Wiltshire!
There was the heavy-footed elephant, the chattering hens and the ponderous tortoise, all vividly portrayed. Perhaps The Swan, the best known of the movements, suffered from insufficient emphasis on the plangent lyrical line, lost as it was in the rippling waves.
It was a lovely concert - one made all the more memorable by Chang’s introduction and explanation of the pieces. Not only did we learn so much about the pieces, but we were enveloped in her infectious enthusiasm. Perhaps it will not be so much the music, but An-Ting Chang’s infectious smile, humour and charm we shall remember from this evening. Please come again!