It was lovely to be back in the round for the latest Strings Attached concert at the Corn Exchange, although the original idea had been for seating on only three sides to avoid placing audience members behind the piano. In the event the concert was oversubscribed and seats had to be put on the fourth side after all. It was also exciting to be about to hear the Aronowitz Ensemble, who have been around for 11 years, although not with all the present members. Those of us who attend the annual Lewis Chamber Music Festival will know some of these players. To my knowledge the Ensemble has not played in Brighton before.
They started with four pieces from Dvořák’s Cypresses which he rewrote for string quartet, having composed them in his youth as love songs. They are expressive in a lush, Dvořákian way and the quartet made the most of them, with gorgeous rich phrasing and lots of rubato. The first piece is dominated by the viola, beautifully played by Rosalind Ventris, who seemed to take over the leadership of the quartet while she had the tune. It was an example of how aware of each other the players are: they look as well as listen and as a result their ensemble is impeccable, not just playing together but echoing phrasing and dynamics.
These pieces are just fragments without much development of their simple musical ideas and it’s understandable that they aren’t much played. Playing them here was an excellent idea, given the heavyweight pieces that were to come.
Beethoven’s last cello sonata (opus 102 No. 2) is a big work and everything about this performance was big. Tom Poster opened the first movement with a fierce attack on the piano and throughout played, not as an accompanist, but as an at least equal partner. It’s how, one sensed, Beethoven would have wanted it played. There are times when the cello seems to be accompanying this massive piano part. Not that there was anything passive about Guy Johnston’s cello playing. His mellow tone soared above the sound from the piano behind him, although it may have been a different experience for those sitting behind the piano. Johnston can move from forte to piano in a single phrase, as Beethoven demands; he can be sweet, he can be ferocious, and the first movement has its share of both of these.
The second movement is another world: a world of stillness and stark beauty. It’s music of such depth that the usual descriptions do not apply: it’s not sad, it’s not peaceful, it’s not despairing, it’s just overwhelmingly moving. Johnston played it quietly, with little vibrato, and let the music do its work. It was wonderful.
The second movement slides into the last movement without a break. The cello states the theme, the music stops. The piano repeats it and stops. Finally the cello decides to go ahead and opens one of the great fugues in classical music. Johnston played that first statement hesitatingly, as though Beethoven was asking “I wonder if this will work!” Only when it came the third time were the two players off on their ferocious roller coaster ride, sometimes pianissimo sometimes forte, the whole thing littered with sforzandi (where the player starts the note with extra bite). Halfway through it is as though a truce is declared and Beethoven again seems to ask “is there anything more I can do with this fugue?” before launching back into it, both players fortissimo now, the pianist trilling for pages before crashing to an end. The playing was exhilarating. The Strings Attached Newsletter a few weeks before the concert asked whether we wanted a cello and piano piece in a concert series that concentrates on larger ensembles, mainly string quartets. For me this was the highlight of the concert. I’d love to know what other people think. Feel free to add your thoughts by clicking on the ‘comment’ button.
The Brahms piano quintet is another great work, again tremendously well played by the Aronowitz. It’s so well known and the writing so busy that there’s less room for an individual interpretation than in a piece like the Beethoven. Having said that, the Aronowitz played the quiet passages quieter than I have ever heard Brahms played; and Tom Poster continued to produce huge waves of sound from the Yamaha piano. It was a triumph.
For those wondering about the name of the group, Cecil Aronowitz was a marvellous viola player, sometimes called “the fifth member” of the Amadeus Quartet with whom he used to play when they needed a second viola. So the Aronowitz Ensemble, although they did not know Cecil, acknowledges him because they choose to be more than just a quartet, enabling them to explore a wider repertoire.