Music@Menlo, The English Voice: Britten, Walton, and Elgar

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Music@Menlo
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Palo Alto
July 27, 2010

The English Voice

Benjamin Britten – A Charm of Lullabies, op.41 (1947)
Sasha Cooke, soprano
Inon Barnatan, piano

William Walton – Piano Quartet (1918-1921, revised 1955, 1974-5)
Wu Han, piano
Ani Kavafian, violin
Lily Francis, viola
David Finckel, cello

Edward Elgar – Piano Quintet in a minor, op. 84 (1918-1919)
Inon Barnatan, piano
Miro Quartet
Daniel Ching, Sandy Yamamoto, violins
John Largess, viola
Joshua Gindele, cello

The saving grace of “music for children,” I find, is that it is never really composed for children, but about them — or more usually about the part of us which traffics in irony, yet yearns to remain simple and pure. There are few lullabies effective for sleep which would long engage an adult mind, so I know Sasha Cooke will forgive me for saying that her stunningly effective rendition of Britten’s Charm of Lullabies last Tuesday at Music at Menlo, outwitted Morpheus.

Ms. Cooke has a fine intuitive sense of what underlies words, and just as in recent Berlioz performances with the San Francisco Symphony, her melting way with cadences and refrains was something to savor.  “Heel Balou,” in the Robert Burns song, was mesmerizing. Blake’s ending of “beguiles”beguiled. The Nurse’s Song brought moments of Gerontius-like dignity (“thy shield and comfort in need”), followed by the heartrending fadeaway of “lullabylabylabylaby baby.” And, in between, for contrast, Thomas Randolph’s ironically named “Charm” raged noisily for quiet, its message essentially murderous. Inon Barnatan proved a sensitive and energetic accompanist, very much on the same page with Ms. Cooke. The English enigmas of the evening had revealingly and excellently begun.

For the listener, the primary fascination of chamber music is not the rigor and immediacy of interplay that performers so enjoy, but the notion of a special beauty, elevated and ascetic, deeply personal, fragile and intimate. Chamber music invites us to create a world out of lines, much as drawing does. It is by definition a reserved medium, designed to summon the imagination. A good composer transcends this and seems himself. A bad one can be helpless without orchestral color to hide behind.

I  looked forward, then, to seeing in live performance how nervous-but-sensual the young Walton would manage to seem, and how introverted and sparing of the senses the late Elgar Quintet might turn out to be. I was not disappointed.

The Walton Piano Quartet opens with a few very English-sounding moments down at the Boar’s Head, or some such place, but before too long it is sweeping along like Fauré at his boldest. I was struck by how tonally beautiful Wu Han and  David Finckel’s phrases were in the lower reaches, and indeed, not to slight Ani Kavafian and Lily Francis, with how rich, velvety and symphonic the entire performance sounded in the fine church acoustic.

There is a central point in the emotional range of English music where both Walton and Elgar — otherwise so different at their extremes — tend to meet, and that is at the ceremonial. Here, in this early work one, can already make out an occasional moment of Elgarian dignity. Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre would only appear decades later.

There are numerous influences in the Piano Quartet, most of which seem to involve bursting off in coloristic directions. The second movement foreshadows the syncopations of Stravinsky or of Walton’s own later First Symphony. The Andante almost manages to will into existence at one point the sound of a clarinet through sheer harmonics, and another passage sounds like a Delius Aquarelle. In the last movement, we’re back to England with a fugue which more or less turns into Bartók at the end.

None of this is substantially a criticism. The Walton Piano Quartet is actually a very logical and well-balanced piece of music, whose stylistic influences fit together well. It does have one amusing “defect,” if you like. As with many otherwise grandiose works by young composers, you somehow just can’t remember the music easily!  You would think youth might be filled with memorable tunes — and run out of them later — but the reality is just the opposite. (Think of how hard it is to recall melodies in the early Dvorak symphonies, for instance.)

And that makes for the perfect segue to the Elgar Quintet, because this much more ascetic, grim and scrapy piece, worked out with Brahmsian rigor and very little attention to color — is utterly and totally memorable. The Quintet opens with an unpleasant  jerky theme that keeps dying on you. It sounds like your car, when you lurch forward on the starter battery by accident. Days later, I’m still humming it.

Before too long we have a sort of hootchie kootchie tea garden theme. That’s unfair — Monks are misbehaving in a Brinkwells legend — even worse, I suppose. Anyway, it is gorgeous in a snaky, chromatic sort of way.  I’ve been humming that for days, too. Then we have a dignified and nostalgic slow movement, easy to recall, though I like the simple melody in the Elgar String Quartet even better. And the Quintet comes to a close working out a broad wide-leaping tune, of the sort which made Elgar famous.

I did wonder, in the admirable rendition by the Mirò Quartet, whether quite so much muscularity and dryness was intended by Elgar or represented the musicians’ point of view.

But the performance worked excitingly and garnered the biggest ovation of the evening. Indeed, applause was hearty and real throughout the program. The audience knew to applaud the very nature of this thought-provoking evening, which brought us three of the pillars of English music — and enough insight to make up a fourth.

Steven Kruger

About Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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