Classical music reviewed by Mike Wheeler

Zelkova Quartet

Derby Concert Orchestra, Derby Cathedral, 18.3.17

Derby Concert Orchestra has a strong track record in Mahler, including splendidly assured past performances of Symphonies 2, 5, and 6. While this account of Symphony No 1 didn’t quite hit previous heights there was still much to enjoy.

The way orchestra and conductor Jonathan Trout eased themselves from the introduction into the main part of the first movement was one such moment. There was a fine balance between stillness and energy in the movement as a whole.

It was followed by a bluff, vigorous scherzo, with a nicely gliding central waltz episode. The third movement’s wry, understated fatalism was finely captured, with the klezmer episodes well characterised, though the second one could have taken a touch more sheer wildness.

The finale was less successful. Long-range tension was sometimes allowed to sag, most noticeably, strangely enough, in those passages where the tempo picks up after a slow section. A pity, because this was a rewarding account on the whole.

The first half opened with Mendelssohn’s Midsummernight’s Dream Overture, in a reading strong on robustness and vigour, with Bottom braying heartily, less so perhaps on fairy magic.

The orchestra’s leader Clair Stanley was the soloist in Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Her colleagues’ warm muted-string sound cushioned her gentle, easy flow, and a good, invigorating squall blew up in the middle section. One or two intonation problems apart, and an account of that tricky unaccompanied ending that was perhaps just a touch prosaic, it was an engagingly clear-eyed performance

Sitwell Singers and Zelkova Quartet, St Nicholas’ Church, Derby, 25.3.17

John Tavener’s last major work, Requiem Fragments, was premiered at the 2014 Proms, nine months after his death. Its unusual scoring, for solo soprano, chorus, string quartet and three trombones, prompted the Sitwell Singers and Derby Chamber Music to pool resources in promoting what was only its second UK performance. The choir, conducted by Malcolm Goldring, was joined by the Zelkova Quartet, soprano Celena Bridge and trombonists Jonathan Pippen, Beth Calderbank and Chris Fowler.

Tavener’s text draws on the Catholic Requiem and Hindu sources, in keeping with the more universalist outlook of his later years. Musically, the work takes its cue from the concentrated canonic textures of Josquin des Prez’s 24-part motet Qui habitat in adiutorio Altissimi, which Tavener studied intensively.

The result has an extraordinary density at times, a rarefied spareness at others. The opening is a case in point, with a disembodied string canon over the choral basses’ hummed drone, moving through the composer’s characteristic double-choir antiphony to a fierce outburst at ‘Te Decet Hymnus’. And at the end of it all he leaves us with an abrupt final ’Requiem aeternam’, a nothing-more-to-say statement of startling bluntness.

Choir and instrumentalists responded to the score’s extraordinary demands with seemingly total confidence. Celena Bridge, standing well behind the choir, sent her voice soaring majestically over the rest of the texture. The performance was a triumph for all concerned.

The choir opened the first half with a short group of unaccompanied motets, exploring a wide dynamic range in the Ave Maria by Bruckner (in some respects Tavener’s nearest nineteenth-century equivalent), followed by more Tavener. Mother of God, Here I Stand, from his colossal The Veil of the Temple, appears to show none of the obvious Orthodox influence that produced what is still his most familiar manner (indeed, it sounded indebted more to the likes of Stanford than anyone else); the better-known Song for Athene, mesmerising at a slower than usual tempo, was a reminder of his earlier manner.

With a gripping account of Beethoven’s String Quartet E minor, Op 59 No 2 the Zelkova Quartet confirmed the outstanding impression made when they first played for Derby Chamber Music, just over a year ago. The opening was charged with a sense of expectation that fed into the restlessness of the movement that followed.

The second movement was appropriately spacious, while the opening of the scherzo had a reticence bordering on the sly. In a nicely boisterous account of the trio section, Beethoven’s deliberately awkward canon on his chosen Russian tune (as stipulated in Count Razumovsky’s commission) was suitably rough-sounding. The performance ended with a reading of the finale that teased out the ambiguity at the heart of the bouncy exuberance.

The whole evening was an outstanding example of co-operation between two of Derby’s leading music organisations. Let’s hope there’ll be more.

Derby Chamber Music: Alexei Grynyuk, Multi-Faith Centre, Derby University, 31.3.17

How much Scarlatti did Chopin know? I only ask because the first half of Alexei Grynyuk’s recital seemed to trace a plausible historical progression from Scarlatti, through Chopin, to Rachmaninov.

The five Scarlatti sonatas with which he opened made a well-planned group. The B minor Sonata, K87, was handled with a rather indulgently flexible tempo, but K135, in E, was given a sprightly account, with crisp finger-work, and K141, in D minor, one of the composer’s brilliant guitar impersonations, was delivered with coruscating energy, not least through the crisp articulation of the many streams of repeated notes. Things calmed down again with the F minor Sonata, K466, where Grynyuk’s rubato was less overt than in K87, before the blistering wildness he brought to K20 in E.

In Chopin’s Nocturne in B, Op 9 No 3, he moved from gentle elegance in the opening section to turbulence in the middle (where the Scarlatti connection seemed particularly pertinent) and back, and a delicately poised epilogue.

Then, with hardly any pause, he dived straight into the fiery opening of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata (in the 1931 revision). This was a vividly colourful performance, though there were occasions when his outsize technique could usefully have been reined in for such a small instrument and venue. But there was calm in the second theme’s continual circling back to its starting-note, and the bell sounds later rang out with brilliance. After bringing out all the second movement’s textural variety, Grynyuk invested the finale with plenty of forward momentum.

After the interval he explored the emotional complexities of Schubert’s Sonata in A, D959, with similar determination. After boldly grasping the start, a less impetuous reading of the same music when it returns at the recap made a telling staging-post on the way to a final recollection in a kind of enigmatic tranquillity. He drew us inexorably into the second movement’s secretive inner world, with its tantalising echoes of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and turbulent, more improvisatory, middle section.

After charting the scherzo’s moods – shifting between the airily skittish, the bluntly truculent, and the distant gaze of the trio section – he began the finale in an almost matter-of-fact ‘life goes on’ sort of way. But there were outbursts of rage to come, and the music’s fragmentation at the end was deeply poignant.

Chopin’s A flat Polonaise, Op 53, was an encore for which there was really no need; after the Schubert there was nothing more to say.

Derby Bach Choir, Derby Cathedral, 1.4.17

Paradoxical as it may seem, JS Bach’s Magnificat is a remarkably concise work, given the scale on which he was working. This struck me for the first time, listening to Derby Bach Choir’s exuberant performance with conductor Richard Roddis.

The opening chorus had real vigour, even though the overall balance took a little while to settle. Julia Gooding sang both the soprano solo numbers that followed (allotted by Bach to two separate singers) with warm, rich tone. ‘Omnes Generationes’ was nicely bouncy, but the climactic dissonance on ‘omnes’ slightly pulled its punch. ‘Quia Fecit Mihi Magna’ was well suited to bass Michael Dewis, not a big voice but ideally flexible.

Counter-tenor William Purefoy and tenor Jason Darnell’s duet in the nicely sprung siciliana rhythms of ‘Et  Misericordia’ was a highlight. Darnell’s account of ‘Deposuit Superbos’ was powerful, and Purefoy was beguiling in ‘Esurientes Implevit Bonis’, with the two obbligato flutes providing a delightfully deft pay-off. The richness of Bach’s five-part choral writing in the concluding ‘Gloria Patri’ was projected resplendently.

There was more Bach, familiar and less familiar, in the first half, starting with three separate numbers from the Christmas Oratorio. The opening chorus of Part One, ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’, was bright and punchy, and there was vibrancy in the chorale ‘Brich an, o Schönes Morgenlicht’ from Part 2. In ‘Grosser Herr, O starker König’, Michael Dewis had more of the orchestra to balance against than in his Magnificat solo, but phrased with intelligence and sensitivity.

O Jesu Christ, Mein Lebens Licht was, for a long time, wrongly identified as a cantata, but is now increasingly designated a motet, for the simple, incontrovertible reason that that’s what it says on the manuscript. It got a performance of inward intensity, as did the rather restrained opening chorus of the Gloria from the so-called ‘Lutheran’ Mass in G minor, BWV 235. The soprano and tenor duet ‘Gloria Patri et Filio’, from Cantata 191, set off at a nicely skipping tempo.

Since this is more familiar in its later incarnation as the duet ‘Domine Deus, Rex coelestis’ from the Gloria of the B minor Mass, it provided a neat link into that work’s Agnus Dei, with William Purefoy a study in calm self-possession, and Dona Nobis Pacem. The effect of this I was a little unsure of at first. We are so used to hearing it as the culmination of a complete performance, that it took a little adjusting to, but the performance built impressively.

The lively, colourful orchestral contribution was in the hands of The Baroque Ensemble, led by Nicolette Moonen.

Members of Sinfonia Viva, Derby Cathedral, 7.4.17

The chamber music repertoire for piano and wind ensemble is not that extensive, but it does include two undoubted masterpieces, Mozart’s Quintet, K452, and Poulenc’s Sextet, and it was a rare treat to hear them both in one sitting. Duncan Ward, Sinfonia Viva’s Principal Conductor, was the pianist joined, in this early-evening concert, by players from the orchestra: Rachel Holt, flute; Anna Cooper, oboe; Chris Swann, clarinet; Helen Peller, bassoon; and David Tollington, horn.

Mozart had every reason to be proud of his Quintet. His innate understanding of wind instruments shines out at every turn. Ward and his colleagues slightly reined in some of the work’s more chirpy side, with a  stately introduction and a fairly steady tempo in the main part of the movement. The account of the second movement blended elegance and profundity to great effect, while the finale was both bubbly and poignant.

Ward then took a back-seat as a pianist, while his composing alter-ego came forward. Hopscotch, for wind quintet, which he composed at the age of sixteen, was a prize-winner in the junior category of the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composers Competition in 2005. The image behind it is that of a children’s game, which goes along happily for the most part, but with an argument breaking out every so often. Owing much to the strength and malleability of its opening bassoon motif, this highly accomplished and entertaining piece deserves more performances.

For its emotional ambiguity as much as its scoring, Poulenc’s Sextet is an ideal partner for the Mozart. Ward and his colleagues launched the first movement in bouncy, punchy mood, sure-footedly navigating the abrupt changes of mood. Similarly, in the second movement, they followed the switches from plaintively lyrical to jolly to deeply serious, and steered the finale from madcap opening to melancholy conclusion with total conviction.