Concert Review

Perpetuo – Saturday 16th March

By Donald Judge

In a world awash with deserving string quartets, it’s thanks to collectives like Perpetuo or quartets and their members joining forces with pianists that bring chamber music for piano and strings to our ears. Perpetuo opened their concert as a string trio playing a contemporary work that held no fears for an audience. Adrian Sutton’s Trio Dances, written for the group, is tuneful, tonal, rhythmical and varied: the work of a composer best known for his music for the stage. Many composers have turned to previous ages for influence: to great composers, to folk music, and as here, to courtly dances from a bygone age. One thinks of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances; Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin; Grieg’s Holberg and Warlock’s Capriol Suites; Fauré’s Masques et Bergamasques that all transform historic dance forms. Around fifty years ago, the English composer Peter Maxwell Davies gave Renaissance and Elizabethan dance forms a new lease of life, with startling transformations and instrumentations. Sutton’s piece is more conventional in language and scoring, but very well written and leaving no doubt this is no mere transcription or pastiche. Titles like Galliard, Sarabande and Rigaudon herald music that retains the spirit of those dances, lyrical, contrapuntal, and with subtle variations of metre. It was clear that Perpetuo, for whom it was commissioned, loved playing it and brought out all the contrasts and detail. A very welcome addition to the repertoire of an ensemble too many composers and audiences overlook.

They say you wait for a bus for ages and then two or three turn up at once, and the same seems to be true of the piano quartet, at least in Bollington. The programme continued with the arrival of pianist Emma Abbate and two masterpieces of a genre not heard at the Arts Centre this century. The catalogue for this genre is nowhere near as extensive as the string quartet’s. As the Baroque trio sonata morphed into the piano trio, transformed by Haydn to unprecedented virtuosity and equality, few 18th century composers thought to add a viola, though Mozart wrote two in the 1780s and the teenage Beethoven three at around the same time. Mendelssohn was even younger when he wrote his three in the early 1820s: Brahms’ three are more mature and spread out over about fifteen years, as are three by Dvořák, though in one of those the piano is only included as a substitute for the harmonium. 

Schumann was in his thirties when he wrote his only piano quartet, and Fauré a similar age when he penned the first of two some forty years later, with the second following after around six years. Both composers were fine pianists, had found their unique compositional voices, and had the experience of passionate love to inspire them. In Schumann’s case, the extraordinary playing of his wife Clara was always in his mind. He had persisted with a courtship opposed by Clara’s father and the couple had to resort to the law in order to marry. Fauré was less fortunate: his three-year courtship of Pauline Viadot led to an engagement that she broke off within a few weeks, a setback that would find its way into the Adagio of the quartet. 

Many will associate both Schumann and Fauré with song, and these instrumental works abound in lyrical and passionate melody, a chance for all to sing in works that surely inspire the performers. Here was chamber music playing at its best, the give and take of rhythmic flexibility and textural balance exemplary. If at times the pleasantly toned Kawai piano sounded a little underpowered, it might be just the contrast with performances where a nine-foot Steinway sometimes seems to be engaging in a battle with the strings. In their time, both these works would have had much less sonorous pianos and indeed a trio with gut strings. In its melodic passages, the treble range of the piano cut well through the accompanying strings, while the chords were bright enough without muddying the waters. 

Both the works are substantial and satisfying compositional feats: the chamber music equivalent of symphonies. Schumann, in his four, was a master of that genre (only now getting enough credit) while Fauré wrote none. But he too conquered the demands of the large-scale classical form of sonata allegro, scherzo, slow movement and finale. It is then for the performers to convey the sweep of individual movements and reach what in both cases is a wholly satisfying and uplifting conclusion, aided and abetted in Schumann’s case by the return of material from earlier movements. Perpetuo had the full measure of this, and gave performances to treasure, along with the hope that it will be a bit sooner when the piano quartet makes a return. 

At this point the alter ego who writes the programme notes apologises for a statement about Schumann’s Piano Quintet that must have the audience scratching its head. That masterpiece, at least equal to the Quartet, is indeed in a final concert in a series, but not an imaginary one in Bollington. It’s that of the Manchester Chamber Concerts, in just a week’s time, Monday 25 March at the Stoller Hall, when Martin Roscoe joins the Maxwell Quartet after they’ve played Mozart K428 and, intriguingly, Scottish Work Songs. So it’s not just Donald Grant and the Elias, or the Danish, inspired by their native folk music.

With final concerts in March seeming very early, and every musical group and venue vying for audiences, it was good to receive bookmarks listing Bollington’s 2024-25 series: another very exciting one, with some very familiar artists returning alongside new ones. Laura van der Heiden and Tom Poster make a very welcome return. Ensemble Renard is a wind quintet. Last week’s string-heavy musical offerings that included the Hallé cellos, Manchester Camerata, RNCM orchestra with Henning Kragerud, the Lindow Ensemble in Didsbury and Perpetuo, were bookended by brilliant performances from the RLPO Wind Collective in Liverpool on Monday night and a sextet of Hallé Winds at Springbank’s Sunday morning Coffee Concert. Talking of which, look out for the welcome return of the Coffee Concert in Bollington on Sunday 9 June, hopefully to sell out as they do in New Mills, and to feature equally – or even more – delicious cake. 

Those who have not had the pleasure of hearing the Lindow Ensemble are assured of a treat in just about a year’s time. It’s a unique and local string ensemble of 12 members directed by Steven Wilkie and comprising professionals, senior students from the RNCM, and talented amateur players that currently include Macclesfield’s own Nicola Bright and two others familiar from accompanying Bollington Festival Choir’s concerts and Messiah for All. If alongside Bach and Tchaikovsky, the name Spilsbury seems unfamiliar, it’s Adrienne, equally talented as a composer as on violin or viola.