Coffee Concert 20th February 2022 – Joanna MacGregor Piano & Brighton Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble – Strings Attached Review by Helen Simpson and Guy Richardson

Brighton Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble with Joanna MacGregor

Ruth Rogers and Nicky Sweeney Violin, Jon Thorne Viola, Peter Adams Cello, Joanna MacGregor Piano.

On a very stormy weekend it was particularly pleasing to see a large audience for this concert and with two very attentive young children in our complement. The concert was led by Joanna MacGregor who introduced the first half as American and the second European.

George Gershwin’s Lullaby certainly sounded American. It is catchy, rhythmic and sinuous and beguilingly simple on first hearing; however the bluesy inflections were made clear today by the Viola player who disturbed the sweet melody with his chromatic line giving a sharpness to the whole. There was fine ensemble playing with warmth from the violins playing in thirds frequently. The cello’s arpeggios gave the whole a rocking motion and this popular piece written when Gershwin was young gave our concert a gentle but curiously bracing start.

Amy Beach’s Piano Quintet demonstrated a completely different type of American music. Her musical background was European and this morning’s performance exemplified it thoroughly. The opening led us to expect great things and soon enough it was clear that Amy Beach’s pianistic abilities were to be demonstrated. The texture was full bodied with strings often playing in unison and the virtuosic piano part at times led the ensemble and later held them still before a change in mood. We had been led to expect influences of Brahms and Chopin, and this was certainly clear.  The theme and overall feel of the slow movement is both serene and yearning or reaching towards something. This morning the tempo though slow, was kept alive and moving by the close understanding between the Pianist and First Violinist who, supported by the lower strings delivered to their audience a most beautiful performance. The danger here is that this movement could sound overly sentimental but we were spared that. We were kept alert in the final movement with its opening nervy string writing. The richness of sound with all five players working energetically and building the shape and structure of the movement gave another hint of Amy Beach’s experience and musical training which required close study of published scores. There were affecting solo passages for the Cello and Viola which relieved the density of sound temporarily and a fugal passage then built it back up.  The movement was brought to its conclusion triumphantly and the audience showed their appreciation wholeheartedly.  It is to be hoped that Amy Beach’s music will receive greater attention and that her name will cease to elicit a query as to her place in Music history.

by Helen Simpson

After their performance of Gershwin’s Lullaby, the group played an arrangement of Summertime, opening with a strong unison phrase on Violin 2 and Cello joined by the viola and gradually subsiding into those famous languorous chords that lead into the main melody,  here lovingly played by Ruth Rogers on 1st Violin. Subtle touches of rubato added to the lazy summer feel, belying the stormy, windy weather outside!

After the interval the players launched into Schumann’s Piano Quintet with a vigorous statement of the main theme, followed by a tender rendition of the lyrical second theme. The rapport between the players was illustrated in some lovely dialogues between the viola and cello. The group really brought out the contrasts of mood in this movement without losing the sense of forward momentum, and there was a particularly lovely moment before the coda where the piano has one of those dream-like moments so typical of Schumann. The coda, with its offbeat accents was an exciting close.

The dark, poignant hesitant march which opens the slow movement was nicely captured and led naturally into the lyrical second theme. When the march returns there were some beautiful answering phrases on the low viola, and the sudden change to a fast tempo featured some dramatic exchanges between the piano and strings. The ghostly return of the march with pizzicato strings was very atmospheric and the movement came to its haunting end.

The joy of the scherzo was tangible, including the delicacy and flow of the first of its trios and the liveliness and playfulness of its second. The coda was played with such energy and the final chord played with such a flourish, that there was a shout of joy from a member of the audience, to the delight and amusement of the players and the rest of us!

The last movement was a fitting climax to this performance with a driving energy. After the ominous reminiscences of some of the material from the first movement, here played with a real sense of tension and suspense, we were led into the tremendous fugue and coda, bringing the work to a thrilling end.

The total commitment of the musicians and their sheer sense of joy in their playing was wonderful to see and their performance was understandably met with an ovation from the large audience.

by Guy Richardson