Coffee Concert 19th March 2023 – Joanna MacGregor & Brighton Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble – Strings Attached Review by Michael Wilkinson and Chris Darwin


Michael Wilkinson, who normally writes reviews of the Coffee Concerts, was unable to attend this concert, although he had done his usual extensive research on its material.  Here are the informative results of his research:

“Our ‘local’ ensemble has become a fixture in this series, and a most welcome one, in terms of sheer musicianship and adventurous programmes. Joanna MacGregor, as in the concerts with full orchestra, is willing to explore well beyond the expected, building fascinating programmes.

“Concert performances of pieces by Rebecca Clarke are becoming more frequent, but this would have been for many in the audience a first encounter. The reasons for her relative neglect are many: she suffered, as so many of her generation did, from an establishment rejection of British romanticism (think of the neglect of figures such as George Lloyd, York Bowen, Richard Arnell, Ruth Gipps and others). Nor was she helped by a relatively brief composing career, which tailed off after 1930, and effectively ended with her move to the USA – and subsequent marriage – just before the outbreak of the Second World War; thereafter she concentrated on performance and teaching. Her body of work – 58 songs and part-songs (many very innovative), a vocal and choral psalm setting, a piano piece and 24 instrumental chamber pieces is small. Her masterpiece is an astonishing sonata for viola and piano, now several times recorded, and her contribution to the viola repertoire is most significant (after her entry to the Royal College of Music in 1908, as its first ever female conducting student, Stanford suggested Clarke switch from violin to viola as main instrument, and she studied and worked with Lionel Tertis).

“It was also rather special to hear Fauré’s early-career Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor, Op.15 from 1879/1880 (the Finale was completely rewritten in 1883, and the original is lost). In conventional four movements, with the scherzo second, it is in mood thoroughly romantic, with characteristic delicacy, genuine but restrained sadness in the Adagio, and a lively finale. Youthful the work may be, but it is in no sense immature.

“After the interval, we heard Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84. Written in Fittleworth in 1918 (finished London 1919), it is the composer’s longest chamber work, rich in inspiration and invention. The second movement – of three – is ravishing, sublime, with some divine lengths. The third movement combines dignity, moments of chaos before making its way to a powerful conclusion. Its emotional depths are extraordinary, and it belongs with Elgar’s greatest works, revealing new depths at each hearing.

“This concert was a fitting farewell to the Attenborough Centre, which has looked after us so well during a break from the Corn Exchange which lasted just a little longer than anyone expected, including Andrew Comben, whose industry and devotion put mere humans in awe.”

Chris Darwin was able to attend and has written this:

“It was heart-warming that this last concert of the 2022-23 season was sold out to an enthusiastic and diverse audience.  The down side was that a substantial number of the regular Coffee Concert audience were at least temporarily turned away, although those who optimistically stayed were finally rewarded with a seat.  Undoubtedly Joanna MacGregor’s reputation for dramatic and convincing performance together with her productive engagement with Brighton Philharmonic were substantially responsible for such a full house, and the audience were well rewarded for their faith.  She provided colour, energy and vitality both in the Fauré quartet and the Elgar Quintet.

“The concert opened with a rarity, albeit one well in tune with the concert’s theme of English Landscapes – two short pieces for string quartet by Rebecca Clarke dating from the mid 1920s.  Clarke was an accomplished viola player and her better-known works feature the viola, but these two pieces show that she deserves to be more widely known.  Her sensitive writing for string quartet allowed some fine cello playing from Katherine Jenkinson whom we last saw in a Coffee Concert in March 2019 as part of the Aquinas Trio along with today’s leader Ruth Rogers.  The muted passages towards the end of each piece produced a particularly beautiful sound from the quartet.

“It was nicely pleasing to have Clarke’s work played by an all-female quartet since not only had Clarke in some desperation adopted the male pseudonym Anthony Trent in order to increase the success of her works, as Helen Simpson’s informative programme note tells us, but also during the 1920s according to Clarke’s entry in Grove “The Daily Telegraph supposed ‘Rebecca Clarke’ to be a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch.”  Some things have improved, even at the Telegraph.

“The emotional energy of the young Fauré’s piano quartet provided a good contrast with the more reflective Clarke, with MacGregor’s piano giving enviable rhythmic precision to its lively Scherzo and combining particularly well with the strings in the atmospheric Adagio.  I did wonder though whether the range of colours could have been augmented in the damped acoustic of a capacity ACCA audience had the piano been opened fully on a long rather than short stick.  This would of course have produced a challenge for the strings to match.

“It was a treat to hear Elgar’s unique and mysterious piano quintet after the interval – a piece particularly associated with the Sussex countryside.  In the slow movement, Caroline Harrison’s viola rose magnificently to the challenge of one of chamber music’s great viola tunes.  The last movement brought well-deserved, very enthusiastic applause.

“This may well be the last Coffee Concert in ACCA; the 7-year long renovation of the Corn Exchange should be completed by the start of next season in the autumn.  During those years the audience have enjoyed a great diversity of chamber music in an excellent hall (with the added virtue of easy parking).  Brighton Dome & ACCA staff are to be heartily congratulated for making this possible.  We all look forward to listening to yet more wonderful chamber music in the reborn Corn Exchange.”