Coffee Concert 20th November 2016 – Review by Andrew Polmear

Coffee Concert 20 November 2016 Amy Harman, Olivier Stankiewicz and Tom Poster

Have we found the perfect venue for chamber music? At the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA) we found ourselves in the most interesting building, architecturally, on the serene and elegant campus of the University of Sussex. The parking is free, there’s plenty of foyer and café space, there’s an excellent rake to the seating, and the auditorium has a décor reminiscent of Glyndebourne – light wood against darker curtains and upholstery. The acoustic is lovely; most of us could hear even the softly spoken Olivier. And ACCA has its own Steinway grand. The Corn Exchange can’t compete on some of those counts. But it does win on others: the grandeur of that great space, the ability to sit in the round on the same level as the players (which is the decider for me) and the possibility of walking out afterwards into Carluccio’s or Côte for lunch. And we are expecting an improved acoustic in the new Corn Exchange. Meanwhile I think most of us are very happy with ACCA.

I think most of us were more than happy with the playing of Amy Harman, Olivier Stankiewicz and Tom Poster. We take virtuosity for granted in two principals of two of our great orchestras and in a pianist of Tom Poster’s stature. What was stunning was the exquisite phrasing, the perfect ensemble, the range of sound (have you ever heard a bassoon as softly played as that?), the brilliance of the changes of mood. And they were a joy to have on stage. Olivier revealed himself to be something of a humorist, while Amy danced her way though her pieces in a way that added to rather than detracted from the music.

So, to the music. All credit to them for ditching the Françaix trio when they found it wasn’t as interesting as they had remembered it. I wouldn’t have chosen the Couperin to replace it but more of that later. The two sonatas of the first half, Dutilleux’s sonata for oboe and piano and Saint-Saens’ for bassoon and piano were thrilling. The Dutilleux was a revelation: achingly beautiful melody interspersed with skittish runs, all perfectly suited to the oboe. And Tom Poster brought out the huge resonance that the Steinway is capable of. The Saint-Saens, too, moves from the lyrical to the quirky. One minute he’s exploring the deepest resonance that the bassoon is capable of, the next he’s downright jokey.

The Schumann Romances for oboe and piano that opened the second half showed Schumann at his most melodic. This is the Schumann of the songs rather than the more hectic string quartets, beautifully played by Olivier – phrases that seem to go on for ever, as though Schumann doesn’t think the oboist needs to breathe. The Jolivet duo for oboe and bassoon that followed was my favourite piece of the morning. It’s a thrilling, and, again, jokey, duet; the instruments sometimes together, sometimes playing against each other, the bassoon always wonderfully bassoon-like, the oboe revelling in the things an oboe can do. Finally the Poulenc trio of 1926. Amy referred to its unapologetic sonority, its exuberance and how it bubbles with energy. Yes, it does and they did.

Which brings me to the Couperin, which in my view was a mistake. I didn’t catch what instruments it was written for but it clearly wasn’t these two. It’s a lovely suite of dances on the theme of love, the two instruments entwined with each other throughout, the piano very much an accompaniment, or silent. It would have been lovely on two viols, or violin and cello. It needed two instruments sufficiently similar to bring the lovemaking off. Oboe and bassoon are contrasting instruments rather than similar and it didn’t come off. What a contrast with every piece that followed, where each composer understood what each instrument did best and wrote accordingly, whether as solo or duet or trio. This issue is mentioned in Guy Richardson’s excellent programme notes where he quotes Schumann refusing permission for the Oboe Romances to be published in a violin version. So much music is specific for the instrument for which it is written.

The final general point this concert raised is how distinctive French 20th century music is. Why is it so obviously French? I think it’s the swirling sensuous nature of the melodies, it’s the fact that sometimes we are given glimpses into a musical world rather than taken laboriously through it. And always, just around the corner, is another joke, another skittering away to another place. Think of the heavy chords with which Germanic composers tended to end their works and then remember the ending of many of these pieces – the shortest, most irreverent note possible. Very French.

2 thoughts on “Coffee Concert 20th November 2016 – Review by Andrew Polmear”

  1. I have been trying to pin down the Couperin piece that was the surprise opening work. I think it was Ritratto dell’ amore, the ninth Concert of Les Goúts Réùnis ou Nouveaux Concerts à l’usage de toutes les sortes d’Instruments de Musique, published 1724. The movements are:
    1 Le charmé
    2 L’enjoüement
    3 Les graces
    4 Le je-ne Scay-quoy
    5 La vivacité
    6 La noble fierté
    7 La douceur
    8 L’ et Coetera

    Was Couperin giving carte blanche for these works to be played by any combination of instruments? A 1908 score published by A. Durand & Fils is for violin and keyboard.

    However I have found a somewhat different arrangement for violin, ‘cello and piano, published in 1969.

    Is this a work for solo soprano instrument with continuo? Or is it a dialogue between two solo instruments?

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