Monday, 08 August 2022

Propelled to our feet by cataclysmic finale

COMPRISING four concerts and celebrating its fifth year under the artistic direction of Wycombe-born Lawrence Power,

COMPRISING four concerts and celebrating its fifth year under the artistic direction of Wycombe-born Lawrence Power, one of the world’s leading viola players, the West Wycombe Chamber Music Festival continues to wow its audiences with a mix of familiar and more daring repertoire.

For these two concerts, Power was joined by a cross-section of some of the most sought-after chamber instrumentalists: violinists Stephanie Gonley, Anthony Marwood, Annabelle Meare and Thomas Aldren; violist James Boyd; cellists Bjorg Lewis and Adrian Brendel and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips.

Their performances, in various permutations, took place in the perfect acoustic of the Church of St Lawrence at the spectacular summit of West Wycombe Hill.

The musical landscape chosen for exploration in this year’s festival spanned the tail end of 19th century romanticism and the early 20th century — a time when composers were pushing the envelope in search of new forms of expression.

Friday’s concert, however, began further back with Bach’s eminently digestible

Keyboard Concerto in F minor
, delivered in a theatrical baroque style.

We were then jolted out of our comfort zone by Kodaly’s

Serenade for two Violins and Viola op 12
with its at times raucous array of complex folk rhythms and melodies, all played with awe-inspiring virtuosity.

Stephanie Gonley had the lion’s share and was outstanding, as were Lawrence Power and Annabelle Meare.

John Williams’s

Theme from Schindler’s List
was both a second safe haven and a conscious scene-setter for one of the 20th century’s finest film composers, Erich Korngold, and his

Piano Quintet Op 15

Romantic but not trite, it held one’s attention without seeming to ever reach a definable destination. Mixed feelings, I suspect, but it was passionately and engagingly performed.

Saturday’s concert opened with four short viola pieces with piano accompaniment:

Le Soir
by Louis Vierne, an item by Tchaikovsky and two by Mussorgsky, all dispatched with impressive clarity and subtlety by Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips.

Adrian Brendel then transported us to a world of extreme minimalism with four solo cello extracts from a collection of 400 pieces — some fragments just seconds long — by Gÿorgy Kurtág. Not everyone’s bedtime listening perhaps, but how exquisitely played they were.

The build-up to the festival’s finale continued in earnest with a performance of one of Mozart’s most popular chamber works — his

String Quintet in G minor K.516

Led by Stephanie Gonley, this was a masterclass in small ensemble coordination, all five players tuning into each other both literally and at every other creative level.

The slow movement was gorgeous, made all the more compelling by Adrian Brendel’s bass line in which every note, plucked or bowed, was caressed and placed to perfection.

What impact the final work, Georges Enescu’s

String Octet Op 7
, composed in 1900, would have on this 21st century audience must have been the subject of some debate. As Lawrence Power admitted, choosing programmes that the players liked to play and which audiences wanted to hear is a trade-off. But this one was well worth the gamble.

Tough on all eight players, it needed a line-up of this calibre, with Anthony Marwood leading, to do full justice to the virtuoso parts. If it was at times hard on the senses, the extraordinarily beautiful slow movement was adequate compensation, and one could not fail to admire the sheer inventiveness, complexity and power of the piece.

Its cataclysmic finale brought everyone to their feet in an ovation that prompted many curtain calls, and for very good reason.

To discover what is on offer for next year, visit the festival’s website at www.west

Some of us simply can’t wait to find out.

Review: Trevor Howell

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