Coffee Concert 14th November 2021 – Joanna MacGregor & Brighton Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble – Strings Attached Review by Michael Wilkinson

Joanna MacGregor’s appointment as Music Director of Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra has been an enormous and welcome boost to classical music in the city. Personally charismatic, and a magnificent communicator, she is a musician of the highest order, whether playing Bach (remember her wonderful TV series some years ago) or promoting contemporary music. Adventurous in her wide choice of repertoire, her involvement with Strings Attached has been justified by today’s concert. Those who heard her streamed chamber concerts from the Dome last winter will have had high expectations. If anything, today’s concert was even finer, not least because of the choice of repertoire.

The opening piece, Frank Martin’s Trio on Popular Irish Folk Tunes, from 1925, was a most welcome beginning. Martin, very popular in his native Switzerland, has not travelled well to Anglophone countries, though Ernest Ansermet was a formidable advocate, and Yehudi Menuhin occasionally played his works in concert. His popularity may suffer a little from the sometimes acerbic character of his later 12-tone system, but this trio, several times recorded, is approachable and enjoyable. The English title is misleading: the French (Trio sur des mélodies populaires irlandaises) is more precise, as there is no mention of ‘folk’, and the sense of ‘popular’ is ‘of the people’. The melodies are not widely known – no Danny Boy here! – but are characteristically Irish in inspiration. The three movements are  enjoyable and often exciting, the first and third building in frantic energy from slow beginnings – the final movement a genuine Irish jig. The slow movement, sadly melodious on the cello, has a keening quality, subtly moving in Peter Adams’ playing. Special praise is due also to Ruth Rogers as she captured the sense of the Irish fiddle, but with a light touch and without caricature.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.2, from 1944, is an extraordinary work, written amid the horrors of war, and written in memory of his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, recently dead. Those who only know the Shostakovich of the orchestral works are sometimes surprised by the even more personal intensity of his chamber works. This piano trio is shot through with deep emotions – and emotions of many sorts, placing great demands on the players, whose parts are frequently very exposed, as in the opening and closing passages for violin and cello.  The subtlety and changes of feeling are dazzling in their variety. This, of course, is true to the nature of grief, something not simply lachrymose, but marked by moments of anger, uncertainty, fierce elation that one is still alive, dark humour – and here, in the final movement, a true Danse Macabre flecked by klezmer influence, a sense of frantic tragedy. The composition of this movement followed the news of the liberation of the death camps – the grim tone said by some to be stories of the condemned forced to dance of their own graves before execution. As much as any performance can do, this extraordinary performance, finished in appropriate hush, rose to the heights of the composer’s inspiration.

After such intensity, it was good to have an interval before Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2, Op.8. This work had a mixed history before its final form in 1887, but it has justly become one of the most popular of the composer’s chamber works, with strong Bohemian accents, instantly appealing melodies, and a confident voice. But there is nothing trivial here. It is a very personal work, written to no commission. The great authority on Dvořák, Otakar Šourek (1883-1956), argued that the Quintet was a self-portrait:

A man seemingly self-contained … at times frowningly in thought, with eyes immersed in the infinite, then smiling radiantly, exuberant with happiness and bursting into explosions of jubilant joy. A man childlike, good and soft, yet at the same time extremely moody, irritable and highly capricious …

Without doubt, the Quintet looks forward to the world of the Eighth Symphony (Op. 88).

Performance presents an interesting issue. The piano part is perhaps the most elaborate and brilliant in Dvořák’s chamber output, and I have heard performances in which the piece has become a kind of concertino for piano and accompanying string quartet. Not so here – this was genuine ensemble playing, parts felicitously integrated and weighted. Notable, here and elsewhere, was the enjoyment the players took in their joint enterprise. This is not always true (I know of one very well-known quartet where the four players studiously ignore each other when not working), but it creates a sense of élan and spontaneity.

A wonderful concert – I look forward to Joanna MacGregor’s return in February.