S&H Concert Review
ARENSKY Quartet Op 35 BRIDGE String Sextet
in Eb major DVORAK String Sextet in A major Op 48 The Raphael Ensemble
Wigmore Hall, London 29 December 2000
3+1or2 = 4or5. 4+2 = 6.
The piano trio and string quartet repertoires are performed constantly by numerous established ensembles, but piano quartets and quintets, and chamber music for augmented string ensembles, remain on the sideline - for special occasions with guest extra players (the same group fee may have to be split!).
The Schubert Ensemble of London has specialised in chamber music for piano with four or five strings, and has built an enviable reputation for its CDs and its innovative commissioning policy has been followed by S&H
The Raphael Ensemble (founded 1992, with quite a lot of personnel changes since then) has performed and recorded the key works for five or six strings for Hyperion, to general approbation, and this concert was a good example of their careful and interesting programming. They appear to date to have been more interested in exploring 19th and early 20th Century byways - perhaps in the (true) millennium about to envelop us they will also recognise the necessity to revitalise their chosen medium by commissioning new works from younger composers?
It has to be said that some of the moderate-size audience which came to the Wigmore Hall between Christmas and the New Year were probably attracted by a rare Frank Bridge sextet, 'in a style which should surely have appealed to audiences during the inter-war years' (Lewis Foreman), and were elderly representatives of those music lovers that Foreman had in mind. This Sextet was one of the works which suffered from neglect, until there was a resurgence of interest due to the influence of the Frank Bridge Society.
Bridge's more exploratory later music baffled British audiences until relatively recently, but this sextet of 1906-12 is firmly rooted in straightforward tonality, albeit with chromatic inflections, and has a rich, full texture which sounded well in the Wigmore Hall. I was glad to make its acquaintance but would not rush to do so again.
Far more interesting to my ears was the unique A minor string quartet of Arensky (1894) for violin, viola and two cellos! Why not give it together with the Schubert Quintet one day, and let one of the quartet's violinists take a rest?
Predominantly dark, as arises naturally from this combination, it was a memorial to Tchaikowsky, and opens with a sonorous funeral chant. It has some oddities, the finale alternating Russian orthodoxy with the theme russe which Beethoven used in his 2nd Rasoumovsky Quartet.
Despite Rimsky-Korsakov's prediction that he would be 'soon forgotten - - - - the variations for string orchestra on Tchaikowsky's famous Legend, have continued to occupy a corner of the modern repertory' (NewGrove2ndEdn.) That central movement is a very pleasant, easy-to-listen-to set of decorative variations which never stray far from the four-square melody, entirely appropriate in this original chamber guise, as memory tells me the song upon which it is based (Legend Op 54 No 5) is about Christ's Nativity/Crucifixion?
Emily Ezust has, as yet, no translations for its (originally English!) poem Kak moj sadik svezh i zelen! and New Grove 2nd Edition adds further to the confusion of its origin:- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (subscribe and link to /lieder/t/tchaikovsky.html) (1840-1893), op. 54 no. 4. Legenda [Legend] (Pleshcheyev, from an Eng. source), orchd 2/14 April 1884 (1890) [Can any readers help?]
Dvorak brought the proceedings to a satisfying end with his fine, expansive sextet of 1878, its premiere led by Joachim, during a period of expanding success and domestic happiness. It has a Dumka and a not really furious Furiant (Gerald Larner) and ends with a comfortable set of variations, which mounts to a splendidly orchestral ending.
A restorative concert for the time of year! The Arensky and Dvorak items are available on CD, and the Raphael Ensemble is at http://www.raphaels.co.uk/
See also Rob Barnett's extensive article about Frank Bridge on this site
Peter Grahame Woolf
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