Articles and reviews linked to the Parkhouse Award

Browse the list of articles on the left, which bring together things about some of the winners of the Parkhouse Award, the award itself, and the repertoire of music for piano and strings.

A lasting legacy

When pianist David Parkhouse died, his widow established an award in his memory to enable young performers to develop their love of chamber music. Andrew Stewart reports (Classical Music 3 May 1997)

The Music Group of London

Musicians and audiences worldwide were saddened by the early death in 1989 of David Parkhouse. Those close to the pianist recall his commitment to doing things well, his dignity and, above all else, the enjoyment he clearly gained from making music even in the last few weeks before he died.

Parkhouse was also a devoted teacher, encouraging and nurturing young performers at the Royal College of Music and elsewhere. In 1990 his widow and cellist chamber music partner, Eileen Croxford, determined to establish a meaningful memorial to her husband, pioneered the Parkhouse Award, a biennial competition open to piano-based chamber duos, trios and quartets offering a first prize of three fully publicised concerts at significant London venues. ‘At the helm of any chamber music group there has to be somebody who is prepared to do a lot extra’, she recalls, ‘which is exactly what David did for our trio and for the Music Group of London’.

The future for the teenage Parkhouse was cast when he heard the Brahms double concerto broadcast from the Proms featuring a brilliant young cellist whose publicity picture sat alongside the programme details in the Radio Times. ‘He was rather attracted to this photograph and decided that he would like to get together with this person,’ says Croxford. ‘On his first day as a student at the Royal College of Music, the first person he saw was this red-headed cellist rushing about. In a short while, we got to know one another and began to work together.’

Eighteen months later Parkhouse received his call-up papers for national service. Thanks to the influence of his mentor George Malcolm, he was enlisted in the band of the Royal Air Force in Germany as pianist and, when on parade, cymbal player. ‘He organised a splendid tour there for cello and piano, and so I was invited out with full officer status. He didn’t let on that I was a female, which made a lot of difficulty for the RAF in finding me places to stay.’

During one period of leave, Parkhouse returned to Prince Consort Road to compete for the Royal College’s coveted Chappell Gold Medal. ‘He stomped on to the platform in his uniform and boots and won the competition, which was quite amazing. When he came back to the college we decided that we wanted to get married, and around that time we formed a trio with our great friend Hugh Bean. Croxford, Parkhouse and Bean became successive beneficiaries of funding from the Boise Award, supporting further study abroad and leading to the birth of the Boise Trio. Bean’s Philharmonia colleagues, the clarinettist Bernard Walton and horn player Alan Civil, began to work with the Boise players and eventually established the Music Group of London.

If an ensemble of the quality of the Music Group of London appeared today, it would almost certainly be snapped up by a major-league agent and no doubt signed to one of the multi-national record companies. ‘There were just not the opportunities in those days,’ Croxford observes. ‘Now there are so many awards and prizes to be won, so that talented young people will come before the public at a very early stage. On the other hand, the competition for work is much greater today. We had to go it alone and it was very hard to make our mark. It cost us far more money than we could really afford to put on just one London concert, and then it was hit or miss as to whether you would get a critic there or even an audience. After David died, I thought the best possible tribute to him was to establish another prize to encourage chamber music ensembles. I knew that offering one London concert was no good, and that we had to give the winners at least three dates.’

At first Croxford worked with the Music Group of London’s former secretary to establish the Parkhouse Award but swiftly realised that professional help and working capital would need to be found. Soon after, she received a cheque for £3,000 from Ralph Husey, chairman of the music club in Riyadh which had often played host to the Music Group on its tours to Saudi Arabia. ‘They wanted to support a tribute to David for promoting classical music in a part of the world where it was almost unobtainable.’

A generous anonymous donation from a close friend helped Croxford to get the first award into business. Its administration has been managed since 1992 by Gwenneth Bransby-Zachary of GBZ Management and its funding has been provided by sponsors Smith System Engineering and the Jerwood Foundation. ‘Without them we couldn’t have gone on. You might well ask what an engineering company gets from such a sponsorship deal. The answer is that Dr Bruce Smith, the managing director, and his wife are erudite lovers of music, and this is a way for them to entertain their clients and also support young musicians.’ The Parkhouse Award’s first winners, the Grieg Trio, set a high standard for subsequent years, upheld in 1993 by the Bartholdy Trio of Paris and last time round by pianist Hanna Weinmeister and violinist Lora Dimitrova (sic). This year’s finals take place at the Wigmore Hall on 12 May, featuring four ensembles selected by audition from 32 a few days earlier.

Much of the recent debate about the state of the classical music business has revolved around the impression that life was more relaxed in the past and that the best of today’s young musicians are being increasingly put under pressure by record companies and manipulative agents. ‘I wonder if that is an accurate impression,’ asks Eileen Croxford. ‘No one could have worked harder than us or with greater commitment to the group’s administration than David and I think these were the reasons for our success. The very fact that we stayed together for over 35 years, I think, is down to the commitment we all shared. I wonder whether young ensembles realise the amount of rehearsal time that groups like our trio spent. Groups that stay together all share the same integrity, which is why I wanted to offer a prize to young ensembles that would encourage them to stay together. David and I had so many wonderful experiences, and I would dearly love to think that winners of the award will go on to get the same from their music-making.’

This article was originally published in Classical Music, 3 May 1997

Group Dynamics

Three’s company: A Wigmore Hall recital on 1 February marks 35 years of the Music Group of London. Keith Clarke reports on the trio con brio (Classical Music 31 January 1987)

The Music Group of London

When Hugh Bean was leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and would walk out onto the Proms platform looking rather mischievous there was always some wag among the Promenaders who would yell out: ‘Where have Hugh Bean?’

One place he’s been for a good many years is in the Music Group of London, together with cellist Eileen Croxford and pianist David Parkhouse. The ensemble is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary, making it the longest established piano trio in the world and without a single change of personnel during that time.

If their rapport suggests a family closeness that’s hardly surprising. Croxford and Parkhouse married in 1962 with Bean as best man and the couple are godparents to their best man’s daughter. They met as students at the Royal College of Music and having all won Boise Foundation travelling scholarships began playing together as the Boise Piano Trio.

‘We’d wondered what on earth to call it,’ says Parkhouse. We were Bean, Croxford and Parkhouse and Hugh said people would call us the Has-Bean Trio!’ By 1968 the group had expanded to include a number of instrumental ensembles with players in common and the Music Group of London was suggested as an umbrella title.

Nowadays the group works almost exclusively as a piano trio, occasionally expanding to four, and turns a jaundiced eye on this country’s lack of support for chamber ensembles.

‘The Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic have their chamber groups and they are under their full orchestral salary,’ says Bean. ‘The principals are sent off into the mountains for a week on full salary to rehearse. If we divided our fees into the hours of rehearsing and the individual practice beforehand we’d all be better off making the coffee.’

The struggle for arts funding is no stranger to these pages and David Parkhouse doesn’t pull his punches on the subject. ‘We get frankly irritated with the musical set-up here in terms of national sponsorship. The Arts Council is absolutely ludicrous in the way it doesn’t give any type of backing to a serious English ensemble. It’s pathetic.’

Training

The piano trio repertoire is vast, yet few new trios have been formed in recent years. ‘We can’t understand why,’ says Parkhouse. ‘I don’t know why it isn’t used more in training. We’ve been agitating for it to be used much more here at the Royal College. We’ve been here teaching now for 30 years and lots of people have formed piano trios on the way but it isn’t an integral part of the syllabus, whereas string quartets are.’

All three members of the Music Group of London work as concerto soloists in their own right and they see that as a tremendous benefit in achieving a good ensemble together. ‘It’s a matter of bringing that to chamber music and being willing to sublimate your personal idiosyncrasies and merge into an ensemble’ — the opposite, says Parkhouse, of the practice favoured by music festivals of creating an ad hoc ensemble from three big-name soloists. ‘They’ve got them for concertos so they say: Let’s have a trio recital. Sometimes they haven’t even met before that evening, they don’t even play from the same edition.’ ‘The whole business of chamber music is too often portrayed as detracting from your stature as a soloist,’ says Bean. ‘In fact it is an added discipline — much harder because you have an enormous responsibility to your colleagues...’

David Parkhouse’s responsibility to his colleagues extends to taking care of the group’s management. ‘I wish I’d done it years earlier,’ he says. ‘Very few agents have ever gone out to get work — they just sit in their offices waiting for people to ring. Quite often we would do the work of getting people interested in booking us again and then they would go and ring the agent. We got fed up with paying commission on that.’

They got pretty fed up with the record business, too, seeing all their much lauded work for EMI deleted from the catalogue. ‘So often now people are paying to make their own discs and we think why should we bother now at this stage in our lives?’

One of the refreshing things about meeting the Music Group of London is the amount of straight speaking — whether it is the Arts Council, agents, or music education cuts that are under discussion. A talent for clearing the air probably gives a clue to why they’re still talking to each other after 35 years’ playing together. ‘We fight!’ says Croxford. ‘And our worst fights are when we rehearse together.’

For Bean, the answer is as likely to be their shared regard for eating. ‘Eileen is a superb cook. Miracles happen. We start rehearsing about 9.30am. Eileen leaves the room for about two minutes at 11 and we come out at one and there’s a cordon bleu menu spread out.’

Having blown out the candles on their birthday cake the group sets off for the Middle East and future trips include Denmark in July, Greece in November, USA and Canada in March 1988. Touring has been an ever-increasing part of their programme — including four trips to China since 1980 — and has been the source of some of the group’s more exotic performances, as David Parkhouse remembers. ‘In Jakarta we were playing a Brahms trio on a huge operatic stage, open at the sides with bats flying about. In the last movement I heard Eileen getting a move on and thought: What on earth’s happening? And then Hugh joined her and I had to push to keep up: Blast them, what on earth are they doing? ‘At the end they book took a little bob and rushed off the platform. It turned out that there were holes in the stage from which appeared an army of cockroaches which started advancing on Eileen and then began to fly.’ ‘One’s integrity departed.’ says Croxford, gathering up her skirts at the memory.

Then there was Brunei, where the lights failed in the middle of the Archduke Trio. ‘It went pitch black and we eventually ground to a halt,’ says Parkhouse. Everybody clapped and someone said he’d go outside for a torch. I said I’d play something while this went on and unfortunately the first thing that came into my head was a Scarlatti sonata. Halfway trough, sitting there in complete darkness, I remembered that it had tremendous leaps in it and I couldn’t see a thing!’ Somehow he got through and the group can claim the first performance of the Archduke Trio with a Scarlatti sonata halfway through the first movement.

In Manilla it might have passed as normal. When the group was there for a radio broadcast the producer called Hugh Bean over to the control desk and asked him to listen to a recording. It was the local military band and I listened to it for quite a while but couldn’t make out what they were playing. Then the produced turned round and said “Please tell me, is that your national anthem?”’

Problem

A tact developed over thousands of miles prevented Bean from giving a completely honest appraisal. One time when Eileeen Croxford’s tact seemed to have gone dangerously awol was in North Yemen at a concert with the entire Yemeni government in the front row. If word had got round that the Music Group of London sometimes hurtled through the music before running from the platform, or that they didn’t even recognise their own national anthem, this concert may have left the impression that the cellist had a problem of a different kind. ‘I had an awful coughing fit.’ says Croxford. ‘I was going absolutely purple in the face and I knew I wouldn’t last out.’ So she stood up on stage, in a part of the world where alcohol is strictly off-limits, and announced: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m sorry but I must go and have a drink.’

This article was originally published in Classical Music, 13 January 1987

DIMENSION Interview

On 11th April this year, pianist Richard Hyung-Ki Joo, cellist Thomas Carroll and violinist Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne — collectively known as DIMENSION — were awarded both the international Parkhouse Award and first ever Parkhouse Audience Award. Jury and audience at the Wigmore Hall unanimously declared the ensemble the winner out of 23 piano-based chamber groups, on the strength of its performances of the Mendelssohn C minor and Shostakovich E minor piano trios. But here is the really impressive part; they played everything from memory.

“Of course it was a risk, and actually quite scary” says Zambrzycki-Payne, “but playing without the music made a huge difference to our playing.” Carroll adds: “It forced us to have a deeper, more thorough knowledge of the score, from the simple fact that we needed to learn all the parts inside out. We will aim to do it as often as possible, time permitting.”

Time is of the essence for DIMENSION, the sum of independently successful soloists, who work towards as many as 20 concerts a year together. Between them, all three Menuhin School graduates boast the Stravinsky International Piano Competition’s grand prize, the BBC Young Musician of the Year winner and runner-up awards (Zambrzycki-Payne and Carroll respectively) and the Young Artist of the Year for two years running (Carroll).

“Things we do outside the trio bring in a lot of fresh new ideas,” says Zambrzycki-Payne, whose recent appointment as soloist with Ensemble Modern has struck an enthusiastic chord with his colleagues. “Through Rafal, it’s not six degrees of separation, but just one degree of separation from all these people we hope will be part of building our repertoire, like composer heavyweights George Benjamin and Oliver Knussen,” says Joo. Not that the trio has to look far to commission contemporary works it has its very own in-house talent, Joo, whose playful experimental style paints a musical portrait of a young man who loves to sample new ideas.

The three players are obviously having a fantastic time, but the way they see it, there are lots of musicians out there and not a lot of work. Their immediate game-plan is more concerts, and they are grateful for all the opportunities that have come their way since DIMENSION’s inception four years ago, when concert manager Regina Parkev coincidentally united them for a one-off concert. The Parkhouse Award alone has granted three concerts at St John’s Smith Square and the Wigmore Hall in the coming year, and winning membership of the South East Music Scheme (SEMS), says Zambrzycki-Payne, “has given us the chance to perform much more, and has launched us in a new way.”

Visit the SEMS website and you will find DIMENSION in the company of a myriad of artistic acts, from pop music to jazz and even comedy. It promotes an all-inclusiveness that, says Joo, “reflects what we think is necessary in today’s business, and what people are looking for. Classical music is the most sophisticated in the world, but it doesn’t have to be elitist.

“Ultimately, our dream is to reach all types of audience, but in particular the younger crowd. We’d love to do work in schools and education, and bring classical music to the new generation. And we are doing that already — by making classical music concerts fun and interesting.”

So what can be expected from a DIMENSION concert? “We’ve tried to be minisculy daring,” says Joo. “We always try to make our programmes interesting. Last year, we programmed a Dohnanyi sextet with one of my own pieces — a mixture of humour, jazz idioms and folk music. At one point I get up and tell a joke, the violinist plays castanets, and I play inside the piano with a ventilator fan — not exactly the kind of piece you would expect to hear at the Wigmore Hall!”

The “minisculy daring” element stretches beyond the music itself. “Today, the audience’s attention span is shorter — that’s not a bad thing, just something we have to respond to. So we try to engage our audience, by making them a part of the experience. We like to address them during a concert because we know it makes them feel closer to the performance. Whether or not they have programme notes, we’ll just say something about the music and our own personal take on it.”

An added source of intrigue is the fluid alternation between solo and sextet proportions in the course of a single concert. “The reason we’re called DIMENSION and not Dimension Piano Trio (or something attached to a famous name or place) makes the point that our ensemble is not simply a piano trio,” Carroll explains. “Because of this flexibility, we’ve been lucky to team up with excellent musicians, like Michael Collins, Gervase de Peyer, Gerhard Schulz of the Alban Berg Quartet, Julian Rachlin and members of the Belcea Quartet.”

There is an openness and freedom that drives through the heart of DIMENSION. No gimmicks, simply music being communicated sincerely but as effectively as possible to what they see as a fractured and increasingly alienated classical music audience. Treading the popular line may raise some eyebrows in the traditional corners of the music world, but Carroll has been doing his research: “A hundred years ago, programmes used to be very different from the way they are now. They consisted of many short pieces, movements of pieces, and different varieties within a concert.” Whichever way you justify it, DIMENSION is not afraid of rising to the challenge of selling classical chamber music to the 21st century.

This article was originally published in Classical Music, 2nd July 2005

JOSEF SUK (1874–1935), Elegie Op.23 (1902)

If you ever go to Prague, you will not be able to avoid the “Vysehrad”, which is the great fortress that has stood there for centuries and has played an important part of ancient Czech history and appears as a backdrop to many Czech mythological legends. In 1893, a tomb designed for prominent people was completed in the cemetery inside the fortress. The first person to be interred there was Julius Zeyer, the poet and dramatist who wrote a cyclic poem entitled “Vysehrad”. In 1902, the composer Josef Suk wrote his Elegie with the subtitle “Under the impression of Zeyer’s Vysehrad”.

Josef Suk entered the Prague Conservatory at the age of eleven. His chamber music teacher was Hanus Wihan, for whom Dvorák wrote his Cello Concerto and coached the Czech Quartet in which Suk played second violin. After his graduation, he went to study with Dvorák, and became his favourite pupil. Dvorák probably loved him even more when Suk later married his daughter Otilie! It was during his relationship with Otilie that he became inspired by Zeyer’s romantic poem. In 1902, he wrote this Elegie for a commemoration of Zeyer’s death. It was originally scored for violin, cello, string quartet, harmonium, and harp. The same year, he arranged it for piano trio. It is extremely atmospheric and although the title would suggest something mournful, Suk’s Elegie expresses the beauty and peace found in death. Ironically, two years after this work was written, two of the people dearest to him died within a short space of each other; his wife Otilie, and his father-in-law Dvorák.

This was the programme note to Josef Suk’s Elegie, performed by DIMENSION, in their first performance as Parkhouse Award Winners at St John’s Smith Square, London, on 7 December 2005.

Amatis Piano Trio, Winner’s Concert, Wigmore Hall, September 2016

For the Parkhouse Award Winner’s Concert, the fiery Amatis Piano Trio performed an intense and demanding programme, and has just been admitted to BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artist scheme.

Musical intelligence and virtuosity were established with the Schubert. The formality of the opening Allegro then gave way to reflective lyricism, beautifully balanced between the instruments. Mengjie Han’s piano was prominent with clean, almost glassy attack, very effective in the dramatic passages whereas Lea Hausmann’s violin was a little thin in tone for the Schubert, but she came into her own with the angular accuracy so essential for Shostakovich.

The musicians relished the emotional contrasts found in the Schubert, constantly communicating with each other by look and gesture. The melancholic cello theme of the beautiful second-movement Andante was given its full value by Samuel Shepherd, a melody that makes a surprising return in the Finale, and after the Scherzo had provided a little light relief, the complexity of the lengthy last movement was pulled off with fantastic energy and attack.

Of Shostakovich’s two Piano Trios, the First is a one-movement experimental piece, written when the composer was sixteen. It is typically ironic in tone with romantic passages colliding with spiky phrases and chromatic leaps. The Amatis members’ youthful exuberance married well with this charged, unpredictable narrative.

Their performance of the Second Trio (1944) was even more breathtaking, opening like a muted cry of pain, the agony then intensified. Grotesque and spectral versions of dances and folksongs interweave with dark discords, leading to a savage climax in the Scherzo, a Klezmer theme obsessively reiterated. Like the Schubert, Shostakovich’s Second Trio is cyclical and we have a reminder of the bleak opening in the last movement. There is no hope. The Amatis Piano Trio expressed this extraordinary vision. The encore, Josef Suk’s Elegie (Opus 23), provided a response to this anguish, conveying the repose to be found in death.

Notos Quartett in Dhaka, May 2012

Close your eyes and you could be transported to a western classical music capital. Such was the high quality of the rendition by the NOTOS Quartett, four young musicians visiting from Germany currently attached with respected institutions in Europe. The NOTOS performers demonstrated their individual virtuoso and ensemble classical music skills in their technique and performance at Dhaka this week, courtesy of the German Embassy and Goethe Institut.

Sindri Lederer (violin), Liisa Randalu (viola), Florian Streich (violincello) and Antonia Koster (piano) — all exuberant young musicians — received training in the Western classical genre in various countries of Europe since very young. Their youth is certainly not to be mistaken for their level of performance.

The evening opened with Spanish composer Joaquin Turina’s Piano Quartet in A minor Opus 67.

A mature cyclic composition in three movements – slow, (lento) fast (vivo), not so fast (andante-allegretto), alternating in repetitive sequences of energetic and languid lines of vibrato (rapid re-iteration on a tone) and portamento (gliding smoothly from one tone to another) masterfully crafted with no ambiguity in the parade of the mysterious Spanish flavour in the notes, the melody lilts, embellished just so in-between, which the violinist seemed to address with content.

This seamless knit of French classical sophistication and Spanish Andalusian folk character offered partnership of Antonia’s piano’s luxuriant tones with the three fervent strings. Not being an especially dynamic piece but rather evocative, the musicians achieved the moods and colours inherent in the piece adroitly.

In the second half, the NOTOS Quartett played Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor opus 25 — which composition is sometimes referred to as “miraculous”, comprises four parts — allegro (fast and lively tempo), trio animato — intermezzo ( a lighter piece that is inserted between two greater movements/verses), allegro /ma mon troppo (fast – but not too much), and rondo alla zingarese (episodes in contrasting placements with one refrain) for nearly 40 minutes.

Brahms composed the piano quartet in 1861 when he was only 28 years old and is the third of some 26 of his chamber music masterworks. This quartet is well reputed for the last vigorous “rondo” part — being the masterpiece of melody and rhythm and a brilliant stylized exotic and rustic Gypsy composition of contrast, usually heard in Hungarian dances and rhapsodies and available in compositions of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn etc.

The slow movement of the intermezzo features the subdued piano of Antonia Koster accommodating the often busy strings of the violin, viola and cello ensemble, with her light deft touch of the ivory and at once with her fiery attack on the keys, belying her frail physical appearance. One starts to note hints of gypsy already in the “andandante con moto“ where the piano and cello seem to vie for the ascending runs with blistering pace and with the pianist tinkling over plucked notes and tremolos of the strings immolating the senses with delicious gaiety giving the effect of a summer romp on a field of light hued flowers in a dreamlike sequence.

The lilting allegro mon troppo of violin and piano notes traces Brahms forbidden love for Clara Schumann, which Nietzsche referred to as the composer’s “penchant for the unsatisfied”, in a happy guise, with all three strings and piano precisely conveying to the listener the composer’s emotions — delicate and tender.

Florian Streich’s warm melancholy cello sits passionately in the background now and back to the fore again to Antonia Koster’s impetuous piano movements and Liisa Randalu’s ferocious rasping on the viola. Florian’s impassioned and vigorous violincello subdues tenderly to the andante while Antonia’s soft and tender piano contrasts with her fiery handling of the keyboards with equal ease.

The finale opens with Sindri’s violin leading to a thrilling feverish mix by the strings. Performed in a 2/4 meter, with accent on the first of three syllables, the composition creates the sound of the gypsy dulcimer through the quick and ringing sounds of the piano. The intricate rondo structure alternating with dramatic release of wild joy, typical of Hungarian frenzied zal gypsy music, confirms the virtuosity and expression of each individual musician through their interplay of majors and minors, the realisation of emotional turbulence and visceral intensity present in the composition, continuously charming, exciting and extracting the listener’s delight.

Santa Claus came in May this year for me bearing the fab four of the NOTOS Quartett– the best gift I have received in Dhaka in a long time.

Notos Quartett at St John’s Smith Square, 3 November 2011

As recipient of the 2011 Parkhouse Award, the Notos (piano) Quartett won a series of three London concerts, of which this was the first. It opened with Mozart’s E flat major Piano Quartet K493 in a pristine, sculpted performance full of impeccable judgement and general craftsmanship: every staccato was just so, every melody was beautifully shaped. What it needed was a little more life. It had an air of studied perfection to it, of having been prepared earlier. Mozart survived, of course, and there was much to praise.

Schumann, however, won’t work like that at all, and thankfully he didn’t have to. His E flat major Piano Quartet Op. 47 received immediate, full-blooded playing, which successfully trod the fine line between Classical finesse and Romantic drama. The slow movement was lush and enchanting, with fine playing from violinist Sindri Lederer.

Walton’s early, much-revised Piano Quartet received an energetic performance. At times there is little one can do with the busy writing except play it well, which they did.

Review of CD Without Words

Music by Schubert, Schumann, et al.

Nils Mönkemeyer and Nicholas Rimmer

***** (5 stars)

On his second release for Sony, Nils Mönkemeyer confirms himself as one of the most sensationally gifted violists to have emerged in recent years. Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata (normally heard on the cello) represents one of the toughest challenges in the accompanied repertoire, yet Mönkemeyer captures the music’s expressive duality between despair and contentment with poise and insight. It is not often that the viola sounds comfortable in transcriptions, yet such are Mönkemeyer’s phrasal inflections and deft touch that the 16 realisations of Mendelssohn, Schumann and Schubert that round out this recital are made to sound like originals. JH

Sony 88697 56399-2

Reviews of Hanna Weinmeister and Lora Dimitrova duo
Parkhouse Finals, Wigmore Hall, 30 March 1995

The Finals for the 1995 Parkhouse Award were held at the Wigmore Hall on 30 March when the winners were the duo of violinist Hanna Weinmeister and pianist Lora Dimitrova, who performed Mozart’s Sonata in F K576 and Schumann’s Sonata in D minor Opus 121 No 2 with remarkable drive and idiomatic grasp. Here was passionate commitment allied with innate musicianship. I fancy it was the degree of mutual involvement which tipped the scales in their favour, for there was much to admire in the other performances by competitors who reflected well on their tuition.

I was particularly impressed with the Trio Stradivari who played Haydn and Brahms with insight and marvellous balance. Then we had the Angell Piano Trio, in Beethoven and Brahms, eager musicians of whom I am sure we will hear much in future years, as we will of violinist Lucy Gould and pianist Gretel Dowdeswell, a duo of innate perception, who played Debussy’s tricky Sonata with rare skill.

A rewarding evening, and what an excellent affair this Parkhouse Award is. Good luck to all concerned.

Musical Opinion, Summer 1995
St John’s Smith Square, 23 October 1995

A programme of violin sonatas by Beethoven, Schumann and Debussy, plus a substantial piece by Lutoslawski, suggests an evening of high seriousness for the audience and hard work for the players. It’s a tribute to Hanna Weinmeister and Lora Dimitrova that their St John’s recital (23 October) turned out quite the opposite — an experience of high spirits and modest charm that clearly left the audience wanting more. And when the inevitable but unannounced encore came, it was played with such rapt stillness and tonal refinement that people sitting near me were craning their necks in an effort to see the name of the music on the stand.

That Rachmaninov’s Vocalise should have prompted this reaction is hardly surprising. But half-an-hour earlier there had been similar audience enthusiasm for Lutoslawski’s uncompromising piece Subito. Here, Weinmeister’s vehement staccato semiquavers were as impressive as her passionate high cantilena and mellow G-string playing. With intelligent and sensitive support from Lora Dimitrova, she managed to make even this disturbing and difficult piece sound beautiful. The other work in the second half — Schumann’s D minor Sonata — was given an equally committed performance. In the first movement, the descending phrase of the second subject clearly has a special meaning for Weinmeister, and she invested it with extraordinary intensity, despite the weightlessness of her bowing arm. The third movement of the Sonata — which starts with a Bach chorale consisting of luminous piano chords and delicate stopped violin pizzicatos — was relished by all who appreciate total togetherness in duo performances.

The concert opened with Beethoven’s First Sonata, which included plenty of similarly happy touches, and continued with the Debussy Sonata, where both players were again commendably at one in their response to the constant ebb and flow of the composer’s inspiration.

The Strad, March 1996
Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, 4 April 1996

The Winners of the 1995 Parkhouse Award, violinist Hanna Weinmeister and pianist Lora Dimitrova, gave a fine recital at the Purcell Room on 4 April. Mozart’s F major Sonata K376 was given with style and the polish essential to such high-wire music. In Bart&ocaute;k’s First Sonata Opus 21 the complete contrast in style was negotiated with excellent poise: what a challenging work this is.

Even more impressive was the capturing of the tiny enigmas comprised in Webern’s Four Pieces Opus 7. But the glory of the evening was kept until the end, Brahms’ richly lyrical Sonata in G major Opus 78, which drew even more from these two talented artists. The spirit of each ardent movement was memorably captured.

Musical Opinion, Summer 1996
Wigmore Hall, 9 December 1996

For their final recital as Winners of the 1995 Parkhouse Award, in the Wigmore Hall on 9 December, Hanna Weinmeister and Lora Dimitrova chose a weighty programme of Sonatas for Violin and Piano. Poulenc’s only published Violin Sonata set the upper limit of the programme’s levity, notwithstanding its memorial dedication to the poet Frederico Garcia Lorca, murdered during the Spanish Civil War. Weinmeister showed versatility in the characterisation of themes but tended to underplay Poulenc’s ever-present humorous episodes. She struck an impressive psychological resonance with Prokofiev’s strife-torn First sonata, in F minor, Opus 80, highlighting the diversity of its disparate elements, yet forging them together to suggest an elusive global coherence.

Schubert’s A minor Sonata Opus 137 No 2 and Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata were given an equally full-bodied treatment and continued to demonstrate the musicians’ intelligence, technical distinction and unfalteri9ng composure. But overall the concert — partly impeded by the ‘all-meat-and-no-potato’ programme — left one hankering after moments of sweetness — glimpses of which shone through in Beethoven’s Presto movement and the opening of Schubert’s Sonata — and willing for Weinmeister’s occasionally overpowering commitment to give way to genuine abandon. Nevertheless, these were distinguished performances and the partnership oozed quality.

Musical Opinion, February 1997

Reviews of Grieg Trio
Wigmore Hall, 2 May 1991

On last night’s form, their performance of Brahms’s C major piano trio, Op 87 must have largely contributed to the Grieg Trio’s gaining the first Parkhouse Award. This last, established in memory of the late David Parkhouse, is aimed at recently formed chamber groups, a species central to that fine musician’s concerns.

These young Norwegians slot exactly into that category. Coming together in 1987, they studied here with members of the Amadeus Quartet and Eli Goren and at the Liszt Academy in Budapest.

There, last year, in Hungary’s Interforum, they won golden praise with international engagements following in its wake.

Rightly so. They are exceptionally good, playing with precocious authority, freshness, command of idiom, technical polish and an integration that belie the brevity of their professional career.

The Brahms said it all, with its generous ardour, its multi-coloured lyricism and its rhythmic impetus — and not just in the joyful triumphalism of its finale.

Earlier the Wigmore Hall audience had relished some emollient Grieg, a stylishly accepted account of Mozart’s Trio in G, K564, and Frank Martin’s tangy and spirited Trio on Irish Folk Tunes. One cavil only: such an inspiring evening deserved a far better documented printed programme.

Christopher Grier, The Evening Standard, 3 May 1991

St John’s Smith Square, 19 May 1992

An enlightened approach

Outstanding music-making was on offer in a pair of concerts at St John’s Smith Square. In the first, the Grieg Trio from Oslo played one of the three concert dates which were their prize for winning the first David Parkhouse Award for piano chamber music in 1991.

If this new competition continues to turn up talent of this order it could establish itself as a major event in its own right. The Trio’s pianist and violinist are fine artists in their own right; the cellist, Ellen Margrete Flesjo is exceptional, and their talents here combined to deliver Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ Trio in D and Shostakovich’s early Trio No 1 with the vehemence and sweeping emotional range that are the hallmarks of world-class playing.

Malcolm Hayes, The Daily Telegraph, 23 May 1992

CD: Brahms Piano Trios
Virgin Classics 5 45184 2***

This is one of the finest performances of the Brahms Trios available. The outstanding Norwegian Grieg Trio combines closely imagined playing with an exciting physicality. The result is to convince us that Brahms’s revised version of the Op 8 Trio is the right one: these players find a pace for its river-flow opening which never drags yet is never merely aggressive. Vebjörn Anvik’s piano playing provides warm ballast, and violin and cello energise the music with all the brio Brahms could have wished for.

They provide this early work with a real Scherzo and a real Adagio: the first tremulous with anticipation and reaction, the second one of the slowest and quietest on disc. For the Op 87 C major Trio, the players resist the temptation to turn its bigger gestures into rhetoric, keeping the listener on tenterhooks, often as if coming across the music for the first time.

Hilary Finch, The Times, 24 February 1996

CD: Beethoven Piano Trios in G major op. 1 no. 2 & in D major op. 70 no. 1 ‘Ghost’
Maxwell DaviesA Voyage to Fair Isle
Simax PSC 1166

This is one of a series of CDs placing the trios of Beethoven with works by contemporary composers, to display what the notes describe as ‘both their contrasts and their connections’. Beethoven was constantly innovative in his trios right from his op. 1 set, in which he broke from convention by writing in four movements and giving the strings greater independence from the piano. The Grieg Trio takes on the second of the three with relish. The playing is sprightly and full of humour, delighting in the shaping of phrases and Beethoven’s unexpected twists. It keeps within Classical limits, but abounds in emotional richness and depth.

Although Maxwell Davies’s sound world is radically different, the slow emergence of the strings in A Voyage to Fair Isle acts like a transition away from the earlier work, and there is no disorientating contrast. This 20-minute, one-movement work dates from 2002, and was inspired by a visit to the remote Fair Isle in Scotland for its first-ever music festival. It’s a rich and engrossing work, capturing the stark beauty of the place and the liveliness of its music, and is played here with poetry and authority.

The trio plays Beethoven’s op. 70 no. 12 with the infectious vitality it brought to op. 1 no. 2, but now with a greater breadth and intensity. The slow movement is an emotional tour de force. The sound is warm, forward and nicely balanced.

Tim Hofray, The Strad, October 2006

Reviews of DIMENSION
Wigmore Hall, September 29th 2006

The recent Parkhouse Award Winners, the piano trio DIMENSION, featuring pianist Richard Hyung-ki Joo, violinist Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne and cellist Thomas Carroll appeared at the Wigmore Hall on 29 September in a programme of music by Frank Bridge, Ravel and Messiaen. The standard of performance was truly exceptional throughout, and the programme’s first half, comprising Trios by Bridge and Ravel, was very fine indeed. I have not heard a young Trio of such excellence for years, an impression reinforced in the second half when they were joined by Michael Collins for Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. This was a performance that touched upon greatness, deeply moving, extraordinary in its penetration of the essence of the work and quite outstandingly well played. More, please. Soon!

Musical Opinion November 2006

The piano trio DIMENSION opened its Wigmore Hall concert on 29 September — marking the 15th anniversary of the Parkhouse Award — with a robust and lyrical account of Frank Bridge’s 1907 Phantasie Piano Trio. The strings demonstrated an impressive unanimity of phrasing (and intonation) in the many octave passages, which also proved a feature of Ravel’s Piano Trio. Here in the long melodies of the first movement the playing was languid and understated but always carried the musical line forward. The quixotic filigree writing in the second movement was deftly handled, at once light and energetic, and the finale was played with mounting passion. DIMENSION was joined after the interval by clarinettist Michael Collins for Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. The challenges of this work are as much to do with character and control as technique, and they were well met, in the long-breathed melodies of the ‘Vocalise’, the near-flippancy of the ‘Intermède’ and the cellist’s gloriously played melody in the first ‘Louange’, mixing wonder and fervour.

The Strad, December 2006
St. John’s Smiths Square, 7th December 2005

The piano trio DIMENSION, 2005 Prizewinners of the biennial award founded in 1990 in memory of David Parkhouse were presented by the Parkhouse Award — supported by The Gordon Foundation and The Tertis Foundation — at St John’s, Smith Square on 7 December in a notably successful wide-ranging programme.

Beginning with Frank Martin’s subtly engaging Trio on Irish Folk Tunes — a great rarity, dating from 1924 — it was immediately apparent that these gifted players: Richard Hyung-ki Joo, piano, Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne, violin, and Thomas Carroll, cello, were exceptionally well-matched. They followed with Josef Suk’s Elegy from 1902, a moving work very much in the Bohemian tradition, beautifully performed. The first half ended with a new work by the ensemble’s pianist, entitled The Triology Dimension, an attractive piece, very well imagined — as we might expect — for this combination, most winningly played. The programme ended with Brahms’s B minor Trio, Opus 8, of which this group certainly had the measure, Thomas Carroll’s enunciation of the opening B minor theme in the Scherzo being particularly fine — a performance demonstrating that the 2005 Award could scarcely have been placed in better hands. DIMENSION is certainly an ensemble to reckon with, demonstrating playing of depth and insight belying their relative youth.

Musical Opinion March 2006
Pavilion Theatre, Brighton 8th March

There was an ominous warning in the programme note for this recital. It read: “DIMENSION aims to perform a repertoire which is not restricted solely to the piano trio medium.” The note was no joke. The opening item was by Richard Joo, a British-Korean, and the ensemble’s pianist. At times this was a hugely discordant piece. Lasting 20 minutes and called The Triology Dimension, it was more of a showcase for this trio and tremendously fun. Discordant it may have been but it showed that this trio, which also has violinist Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne and cellist Thomas Caroll, are also highly accomplished individual players. They are all graduates of the Menuhin School and each has been major prizewinner: Joo of the Stravinsky International Piano Competition; Zambrzycki-Payne of the BBC Radio 2 Musician of the Year award; and Caroll was named Young Concert Artist of the Year for two years running. In their own piece they were infectiously enthusiastic, bending the music in the way that jazz veterans do but is really heard in a classical ensemble. And in its reading of Brahms’ Piano Trio in B major the trio gave a reading of verve and vitality and great excitement such as I doubt the piece had ever before received.

 

St John’s, Smith Square, London, December 07, 2005

As winners of the Parkhouse Award, now in its fifteenth year, the ensemble DIMENSION — usually a piano trio — takes a series of three London concert dates, of which this first one offered an extremely varied programme.

The main work, a dramatic performance of the Revised Version of Brahms’s B major Piano Trio, was one that scaled the heights early on, thanks to Thomas Carroll’s passionately voiced cello, and it never looked back. Pianist Richard Hyung-ki Joo had his moment in the Adagio, a rapt stillness in the homophonic writing countering more urgent thoughts from Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne’s violin, the composer’s lead from Beethoven clearly taken.

The players made a big sound in the outer movements, Joo occasionally straining the piano’s sound quality, but there was also energy and drive perfectly suited to this relatively youthful piece. The scherzo was a tour de force, pointed contrasts made between the opening pinpricks on violin and cello and the big theme, wrapped up with a ghostly envoi sans vibrato. Tuning was excellent throughout, no mean achievement for what is a difficult key for the strings.

Opening the concert was a virtuoso performance of Frank Martin’s folk-based trio. Taken at quite a lick, the melodies were thrilling in their presentation, with Joo enjoying his skittish accompaniment to Carroll’s profound cello solo in the Adagio. Meanwhile the scurrying, jerky rhythms of the closing ‘Gigue’ were expertly dispatched, the pianist throwing off the principal melody’s ornamentation with considerable élan. At all times the three players communicated their musical thoughts with themselves and the audience, only too happy to be making music of an extremely high quality.

Reviews of Bartholdy Trio

The darting Scherzo brought a display of virtuosity from all three players as well as an almost theatrical intimacy... unsurpassed intensity of expression: the result of a profound empathy that proved to be no mere display. (Mendelssohn Trio No 1 Op 49 in D)

The Strad, May 1993
Wigmore Hall, 15 November 1994

Fierce competition for survival among present-day chamber ensembles has encouraged many newly established piano trios to concentrate on technical excellence: to refine and polish, so that this almost becomes an end in itself. Of course anything for for public consumption needs this technical excellence, but the finest playing must also exude a sense of enjoyment. The prize-winning Bartholdy Trio of Paris has this quality, which liberates its interpretative exploration on a dynamic and emotional level. For instance, pianist Nathalie Juchors plays with the instrument lid fully open, which is an enormous test for her control of touch and dynamic. It’s just this feeling for colour and tonal gradation that was striking in the Allegro vivace in Beethoven’s Trio in G major op. 1 no. 2. My only quibble was that cellist Guillaume Paoletti’s rather fast and tense vibrato occasionally led to some chopped phrasing.

Their performance of Martinů’s lesser-known Bergerettes was delightful — the players possessed an excellent feeling for the composer’s characteristic sprung rhythms, and the fast passage work was always crisply taut. But the all-embracing emotional world of Schubert’s Trio in E flat major proved the highlight of the evening. Here their approach to the first movement was quite Classical — with a light touch that avoided the temptation for indulgence, Moreover, they had the confidence to draw the audience in with real pianissimos, which effected not only intimacy but elicited a wider canvass of tone. They drew charm, drama, pathos and a sensitive feel for key colour into the proceedings. In all, it was a stunning performance.

The Strad, January 1995
Wigmore Hall, 15 November 1994

This concert was a delight from start to finish. It was the final one of three promoted as the 1993 Parkhouse Prize awarded to the young Bartholdy Trio. It demonstrated admirably that we should have no fears for the future of the Piano Trio when the Beaux Arts players retire. It was no surprise to see that Menahem Pressler of the Beaux Arts has been coaching the Bartholdy, for his influence was clear to hear in the style and playing of the pianist Nathalie Juchors. She demonstrated much of Pressler’s wit, forthright attack, dominance and pearly evenness of scale passages. The violinist Dominique Juchors and the cellist Guillaume Paoletti are also strong musical personalities, both blessed with fine technique and rich tone; all three clearly listen to each other and fuse without any hint of untidyness.

The concert opened with Martinů’s Bergerettes, a happy engaging work in 6 movements apparently inspired by Czech folk-lore and dance rhythms. The sheer vitality and exuberance of the playing was irresistibly infectious. The Beethoven Trio Op. 1/2, a work much less played than either the Ghost or Archduke Trios but in my view hardly less worthwhile, was played with sensitivity, complete assurance and dynamic subtlety; the slow movement impressed as a marvel of refined lyricism.

The second half consisted wholly of the Schubert E flat Trio D929 Op 100. Here the pianist clearly demonstrated the importance of her role in maintaining impetus; her subtle colourations again reminded me of Pressler’s playing. The playing of the march-like slow movement, as each player in turn took up the main theme and then all intertwined, will long remain in my memory. If repeated hearing had perhaps previously cloyed my enjoyment of the work, I was now reminded of its original youthful import.

As an encore, the Trio appropriately chose the sublime slow movement of Mendelssohn’s D minor Trio, hauntingly played. In all, on a Winter touched evening, this concert was a breath of Spring. I predict we will be hearing much more from the Bartholdy Trio.

Strictly Off the Record, Live Music in View, March 1995

RICHARD HYUNG-KI JOO (b. 1973), The Triology Dimension

Vienna 1994. I moved into a building somewhere in the tenth district. My flat mate was the violinist Aleksey Igudesman, with whom I studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School. On the Ground Floor lived a cellist from former East Germany by the name of Tristan Schulze. A few months later, Daisy Jopling, an English violinist, rented the apartment downstairs. For a year, we four musicians lived in a Utopia of sharing food, wine, ideas, and music, and in April 1995, we organised an ad hoc concert in Vienna’s famed “Porgy and Bess” Club. The concert was a pot-pourri of Chopin, improvisations on a Sitar, comedy sketches, and individual arrangements and compositions. Two pieces, that were arranged for the string trio by Tristan, were such a success that thereafter, they formed the group “Triology”, and since then, they have performed around the world, worked with Hans Zimmer on a Hollywood soundtrack, and recorded several CDs including “Who Killed the Viola Player?” (BMG). All three of them have inspired me endlessly and in the spirit of Schumann, who wrote his “Carnaval” to portray his friends, this composition is my homage to them.

I: “Tristanamania”
To say that Tristan is just a composer and a cellist would be the understatement of the century. He is one of a kind. I will never forget the day he improvised a piece for me playing the cello, piano, bandoneon, and drums all at the same time! He writes music in various styles and often juxtaposes styles within the same piece. Writing this piece was fun, because I could pretend to be him for a while. Depending on when you read this programme note, you will notice that there are several ‘jokes’ in the piece. East Germans have a specific sense of humour, and I rarely laugh out loud when Tristan tells a joke. He thinks that I do not find him funny. On the contrary, I love his sense of humour dearly.

II: “Daisy’s Magic”
In some dictionaries, when you look up the word ‘magic’, it says — see Daisy. She is a force of nature and a force of music and there is no way I could compose music that would emulate her spirit. So, I took the old English song that bears her name, put it in a hat, waved my compositional wand, and shouted “Daisyacabra!” A few seconds later, a rabbit came out, munching on a piece of manuscript paper...

III: “The Aleksey Revolution”
He comes from Russia, his first love was Spanish, he loves Indian food and music, he wrote a sonata for violin and piano titled “The Bastard Sonata”, he performed my “Elegy” for my mother’s memorial concert, he always plays the same tune on the piano, and a few months ago, after 19 years of friendship, we created and performed a show that embraces comedy with music entitled “A Little Nightmare Music”, which was premiered at the Musikverein. All these elements are depicted in this piece, and the listener is taken on a little revolution through the revolutionary life of Aleksey Igudesman: violinist, composer, cook, poet, comedian, expert on women and emotions, and the perfect partner in crime.

© Richard Hyung-ki Joo

This was the programme note to Joo’s The Triology Dimension, performed by DIMENSION, in their first performance as Parkhouse Award Winners at St John’s Smith Square, London, on 7 December 2005.

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833–1897), Trio in B flat major, Op8

In the year 1854, the world first witnessed a demonstration of an invention without which this modern world would be unthinkable — the Otis elevator-brake which, in turn, led to skyscrapers becoming a practical reality. Over the next 35 years, taking us to 1889, the world would witness everything from the camera to the light bulb, the sewing machine to the birth of recorded sound via the phonograph. In 1889, the Otis elevator-brake meets electricity, ensuring safer travel for passengers, and the phonograph meets Brahms, making him the first composer ever recorded and ensuring that his voice and piano playing of his own Hungarian Dance No.1 survives to astound us still today. Also in that year of 1889, Brahms finishes revising a work that was first published in 1854 when he was just 21 years old — the Trio No.1 in B major op.8. Strangely, when the new revised version was printed, it still bore the same opus number and title. However, these two works could not be more different from each other.

Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann for the first time in 1853. Both Schumanns would play a key role in Brahms’s life as a musician and man. Not long into their friendship, Robert Schumann attempted suicide on several occasions and was confined to a sanatorium. Over the next two years of hardship, Brahms and Clara developed an intense affection for one another but they both suppressed their feelings and each remained, respectively, a loyal friend and loyal wife to Robert. Arguably, all of Brahms’s music hereafter would be born and inspired from this suppressed passion and unresolved love for Clara and, painfully for him but thankfully for us, we are privileged to be left with some of the most passionate and intimate music ever written. The Trio op.8 is a fine example of this.

In fact, we really are lucky to have any of his output as he ended up burning a lot of music that he felt did not meet his high standards. The 1854 version survived his wrath and became his first chamber work published, (with the help of Robert Schumann). How ironic that 35 years later, this trio would still trouble him enough to erase at least one third of the material and attempt to improve it. Brahms wrote to Clara: “I have rewritten my B major trio and can now call it opus 108 as opposed to opus 8. It will not be as wild as it was, but whether or not it will be better?” The first version is almost never performed, and tonight you will hear the later version. Better or not, there are no words in my dictionary to describe the beauty of this 1889 version. And whether or not one day this work will be renumbered as Trio No.4 (or No.5, should you include the Horn Trio, in which case, the Clarinet Trio ends up as No.6), it is clear that 35 years not only changed the world in which Brahms lived, but also the world inside Brahms and his masterpiece known as opus 8.

© Richard Hyung-ki Joo

This was the programme note to Johannes Brahms Trio in B flat major, Op8, performed by DIMENSION, in their first performance as Parkhouse Award Winners at St John’s Smith Square, London, on 7 December 2005.

Reflections — Works for viola and piano by Schumann, Britten and Shostakovich

 

Of the great composers, it was Schumann who discovered in music — for instance in the slow pieces in ‘Kreisleriana’ — the mode of reminiscence, of looking and harking back.

Theodor W. Adorno

Aus alten Märchen winkt es
Hervor mit weißer Hand,
Da singt es und da klingt es
Von einem Zauberland;

It beckons from old stories,
the wave of a white hand.
It sings, and it sounds out
From a magical land.

Heinrich Heine
(set by Schumann in Dichterliebe, op. 48)

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first—”

Lewis Caroll
Through the Looking-Glass: And What Alice found there

My recent reading has included two novels concerned with Time. In Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis, a life is described in reverse time, and we follow the protaganist’s journey backwards from eccentric old age to childhood. And in ‘42’ by Thomas Lehr, Time suddenly and mysteriously comes to a halt and a small group of humans stumble through the immobile, frozen world. Both authors allow us to experience Time in a different way from our everyday existence, and this set me thinking about how Time and Memory are experienced in music, in particular in tonight’s works.

Such abstract musings might have been attractive to an introspective character such as Robert Schumann. The son of a publisher, Schumann was exposed to literature from his earliest years. He lived an intense inner life, inventing literary doubles for himself, writing a diary and searching for his own identity: “Who I really am, is still unclear to me,” he confided to his diary. His early piano lessons were amateurish and unsatisfactory, and so Robert spent his time improvising and creating entertaining portraits of friends and family at the piano.

Schumann began to find musical pictures for his literary ideas in cycles of inter-related piano pieces such as Papillons (based on Jean Paul’s Flegeljahre) and Kreisleriana (based on E.T.A. Hoffmann). Similarly, the piano postlude of the final song of Frauenliebe und-leben returns to the opening of the cycle as a wordless memory of the happiness of first love. Even more extreme is the open-ended structure of Dichterliebe, a cycle which takes place almost entirely in the protaganist’s own head. It is only in the final postlude that the piano’s reminiscences come to a resolution, although one is left with the impression that the cycle could equally well begin again in an unending circle.

Adagio and Allegro, op. 70 was composed in a burst of composition in February 1849, towards the end of his six-year stay in Dresden. These were difficult years for the Schumann family; after having failed to be elected successor to Mendelssohn as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Robert’s frustration with his situation resulted in frequent bad health. Following the release of relevant medical documents in 2006, it has become clear that Schumann suffered from a type of manic-depressive disorder and syphilis. He complained of dizziness, panic-attacks and nervousness which were to become an increasing hindrance and disturbance throughout his final years.

The two movements of the Adagio and Allegro complement each other, or (to use a well-worn metaphor) they act as two sides of a coin, fitting perfectly to two of Schumann’s self-created alter-egos: the Adagio to dreamy, introspective Eusebius and the Allegro to fiery, passionate Florestan. We might understand this as a musical self-portrait in the form of a diptych; the extremes of Schumann’s character are presented side-by-side, balancing each other out. Though originally conceived for horn and piano, the work has become a staple in the repertoire of many string and wind instruments. Performing music on alternative instruments was far more common in the nineteenth century than one might expect, publishers often released parts for several instruments to increase circulation of new pieces and perhaps also to facilitate performance in a household setting. In the Schumann home, too, Hausmusik played an important role, chamber music was often played together with visitors and friends, with Robert’s wife Clara usually taking the piano part.

Schumann composed the Märchenbilder (fairy-tale pictures) within a year of moving to Düsseldorf from Dresden in 1850. After prolonged doubts he had accepted the post of municipal music director, and the warm welcome which the Schumann family received in Düsseldorf inspired a continuous stream of new compositions, among them the Cello Concerto and the Rhenish Symphony. The four pieces which make up Märchenbilder were composed in a matter of days in March 1851 and were dedicated to the concert master of the Düsseldorf orchestra Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, who had studied under Schumann for a short while in Leipzig. Schumann described them as ‘Kinderspäße’ (children’s jokes), a self-effacing remark, which should not tempt us into thinking of these pieces as slight.

The first movement is a miracle of craftsmanship; two themes are developed and juxtaposed before being heard simultaneously at the brief climax. Schumann’s tempo indication ‘Nicht schnell’ (not fast) is delightfully vague, leaving the performers no option but to discern the music’s elusive character in the notes themselves. The second movement is a wildly-syncopated rondo, which, for all its energy, vanishes into thin air like an apparition. An extreme texture is found in the third movement, the viola’s triplets (marked to be played off-the-string) fighting against the mighty chords of the piano. The final piece somehow brings us full-circle, a melancholy meditation in the paradoxically ‘happy’ key of D major, ending with the least emphatic of cadences, almost as if we cross the threshold into a ‘magical land’...

* * *

Benjamin Britten’s intentions in Lachrymae are made clear in the work’s subtitle, ‘Reflections on a song of Dowland’. In distancing himself deliberately from the standard variation-form, Britten approaches his source obliquely, in an improvisatory manner. The music of the Elizabethan age was a source of constant inspiration for Britten and many of his contemporaries. Even in his own life-time, Dowland’s lute-song Lachrymae, also known as Flow my tears, became something resembling his signature tune. Confusingly, Britten actually bases most of the work on a different song by Dowland, If my complaints could passions move — the actual Lachrymae tune is quoted only once, roughly half-way through the piece. Marked appassionato, this moment forms the works emotional centre.

In many ways, Lachrymae is composed backwards in time. It begins with mysterious tone-clusters in pianissimo tremolando, the motives only begin to take shape gradually. Each section brings a change of texture and of harmonic centre, although the pervading mood remains sombre and austere. After a long and climactic build-up, the music gradually calms and finally reaches its goal and starting-point: the statement of the theme which has been intangibly there all the time, and which is now revealed with disarming simplicity. Dowland’s melody seems simultaneously the logical result of all that has gone before as well as its ultimate source; Time’s Arrow seems to point in both directions.

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

John Dowland
* * *

The Sonata for Viola and Piano, op. 147 is Dmitri Shostakovich’s final work. It stands alongside other works of his final years such as the Symphony No. 14 (dedicated to Britten) and the String Quartet No. 15 as a profound meditation on death. Completed on the composer’s death-bed, it is difficult to separate the Viola Sonata from the biographical circumstances of its composition, and perhaps that is not necessary. I find that attempts to verbally define or describe this music seem inadequate; so below I wish to give simply a few personal thoughts and images.

The music begins with the passing of Time. The ticking of a clock, the beating of a heart. There is, too, a larger pulse — breathing-in, breathing-out. Into the space come lines, curves of melody, overlapping, gradually falling, descending.

A second movement, sardonic, dance-like. Fanfares. Fragments of songs. An outburst of recitative. The chill of an ending without resolution.

The final Adagio, recitativo. Reference to Beethoven, a composer Shostakovich revered. Departure and repose.

Nils and I hope that you will enjoy joining us this evening in experiencing these reflective and multi-layered works, and wish to leave you with the words of a student and friend of Shostakovich:

Kindness, sincerity, perfection of absolute thought, suspended from the bustle and freedom of apophthegm, are the characteristics of the viola sonata as it is of its author’s character.

Boris Tishchenko (b.1939)
in a letter of 11 September 1975,
one month after the composer’s death

© Nicholas Rimmer

Programme note for Reflections programme by Nils Mönkemeyer and Nicholas Rimmer, given in their recital at the Wigmore Hall, 14 March 2010