Saturday, March 23, 2019

Twentieth Century Brits at Boston Court Pasadena

The Villiers Quartet, l-r: , Nick Stringfellow, Tamaki Higashi, James Dickenson, Carmen Flores.


Villiers Quartet, Boston Court, Pasadena

When an alert hit my inbox from local South Bay chamber music entrepreneur Jim Eninger about a concert entirely devoted to 20th century British composers (and with no familiar sweeteners), it was temptation enough for this expat devotee of British music to head up to a previously unvisited venue, the Boston Court Pasadena Performing Arts Center. The recital—by the Villiers Quartet, also British-based—proved to be well worth the trip.

Thea Musgrave and Peter Mark.
The title above really ought to read “20th and 21st Century”, as two of the four composers represented are still, happily, with us. This was true in the literal sense of the indefatigable Thea Musgrave, Scottish-born but resident in the USA since 1972. Together with her husband, the conductor Peter Mark, she was present for a performance of her single String Quartet, written in 1958 and thus near the beginning of a very long composing span that, just as happily, continues into her 91st year.

Thea Musgrave with Jack Van Zandt.
Interviewed (left) on stage in Boston Court’s small Branson Performance Space before the start by composer Jack Van Zandt, Ms. Musgrave began an eloquent, wry, and warm-hearted sketch of her early career by observing that until she came to look at the score of the quartet prior to this performance she had quite forgotten it… and had immediately begun correcting it! On her publisher’s website, however, a useful summary of the work appears above her name:

“This work[…] was commissioned by the University of Glasgow[…]. A single theme, heard in the cello at the beginning, gives rise to the main material of the whole work[…] In the first movement two versions of the theme are presented in alternating Adagio (expressive and contrapuntal) and Allegro (vigorous and rhythmic) sections. It is shown in a more light-hearted aspect in the second movement - a scherzo. The last movement starts with another version of the original Adagio. A new vigorous theme in dotted rhythm is then heard and after various developments it is then combined with the Adagio theme. A final Presto brings the work to an exciting close.”

Thea Musgrave in 1966.
Though such of Thea Musgrave’s later music as I have heard is approachably eclectic, her language in 1958, to judge by the 16-minute String Quartet, was entirely post-Schoenbergian Modernist. At a single hearing, my “atonal ears” were not firmly enough in place to follow those ramifications of the somber ‘cello opening, with the slow, overlapping entries that followed on the other instruments. Striking, rather, were the extremes of rhythmic, dynamic, and textural contrast throughout the piece, though there was no missing that “new vigorous theme”, a dissonant tripping dance, in the last movement.

The Villiers Quartet followed the rapid twists and turns of the work with a skill and commitment that, continuing on through the remainder of a long evening, demanding alike for audience and performers, left one simply dumbfounded. I hope that in due course they record the Musgrave quartet so that it’s possible to get to know the work better, as they already have the second item, the String Quartet No. 2, Op. 20, by Peter Racine Fricker (1920-1990).

Peter Racine Fricker, 1951.
Born in London, Fricker had a rapid post-war rise and then fall in prominence in British musical life before moving to the USA in 1964. As Chairman of the Music Department at the University of California Santa Barbara, he in 1970 invited Thea Musgrave, as she noted in the interview, to be a Guest Professor while he was on sabbatical—and thereby kickstarted her eventual removal to the US.

Fricker’s 1952-53 String Quartet No. 2, written at the height of his post-war celebrity, was commissioned by the then-prestigious Amadeus Quartet. Closer to conventional tonality than the Musgrave and, at 23 minutes, half as long again, it nonetheless challenged concentration. In the Villiers’ performance the contrapuntal strivings of its long Inquieto allegro first movement, eventually sliding away into silence, had at times a ferocious urgency and a deeply serious, steely grandeur far removed from the gadfly conjunctions, variously spiky and twinkling, in her work.

The Molto allegro second movement, propulsively airborne by the Villiers Quartet, is a scherzo, opening and closing with a stuttering theme on first violin against pizzicati on the other three instruments. The first movement, despite the initial marking, is essentially a slow movement, and thus balanced in the overall scheme by the Adagio finale. A powerful, seamless structure, rising to and then falling away from a granitic central peak, its reflective dying fall required time to be absorbed, and it was good that the concert interval was moved to this point, rather than following the third work as originally planned.

Alexander Goehr.
Born in Germany in 1932 but British by adoption, Alexander Goehr has continued to compose into his late eighties, but sadly was unable to attend the performance of his String Quartet No. 3, Op. 52, composed in 1990. Maybe tonality deprivation was beginning to set in, but I found this the toughest listen of the three quartets—in places fragmentary in the extreme, with textures pared to the bone and what sometimes seemed like a quasi-improvisatory quality.

In the latter half of its 17-minute span, however, the work for me gained weight and coherence as it sank into what sounded like a defeated meditation, and this mood made it unsurprising to discover, on later research, that it is dedicated to the memory of Goehr’s friend and colleague John Ogdon, the composer and phenomenal pianist, who had died the previous year (one of my enduring musical memories is hearing—or perhaps witnessing is a better word—Ogdon play all four-and-a-half hours of Sorabji’s mighty Opus Clavicembalisticum in a single concert).

Frank Bridge with his wife, Ethel,
and the young Benjamin Britten.
Finally, Frank Bridge, an English composer from an earlier generation who is still better known in Britain as Benjamin Britten’s teacher, and beyond those shores barely at all. How splendid it would be to hear, played by an orchestra in southern California, his gloriously romantic orchestral suite The Sea (1910-11), or the much later and more radically inventive symphonic poem Enter Spring (1926-27), or, conversely, to encounter his great single-movement concertos Oration (1929-30) and Phantasm (1931) from (respectively) an enterprising ‘cellist or pianist?

On this occasion, however, we were privileged to hear his Quintet for Piano and Strings in D minor, Op. 49, in which the Villiers Quartet were joined by Nadia Shpachenko (waiting like Brünnhilde in the wings, fresh to meet the hero in Act Three of Siegfried!). Originally composed in 1904-05, but radically revised in 1912, the Piano Quintet’s first movement opens, after a few hushed preparatory measures from all five players, with an upward-striving and to my ears slightly sinister main theme, piano e dolce, on the viola, played with husky intensity by Ms. Flores, over deep rolling arpeggios on the piano.

Here, Bridge shows the love of viola sound that he shared with many of his British contemporaries, but soon the other strings join in developing the theme, first singly and then in varying combinations, before the piano alone introduces the memorably romantic second subject. Bridge in this movement basically follows a sonata design, but with great inventiveness and, in this performance, a teeming passion led by Ms. Shpachenko’s fresh and steel-bright fingers.

Nadia Shpachenko.
It would be particularly instructive to hear the first version of the Piano Quintet if it still exists, because in his revision from four movements to three Bridge, among other changes, combined the two original central movements into one by enclosing the scherzo within the slow movement. The entirely beguiling result means that the memorably heart-on-sleeve romanticism of the Adagio ma non troppo main theme, sung first by all four strings, has no time to outstay its welcome before the Allegro con brio scherzo section arrives, nudged in by the piano. After a powerfully athletic climax, that romantic Adagio theme returns, even more sensuously haunting, on the ‘cello alone before all the players join in a gorgeously eloquent leave-taking.

Finally, with brook-no-argument intensity, the Villiers Quartet and Ms. Shpachenko tore into Bridge’s boldly rhetorical and satisfyingly concise finale, to bring this memorable concert to a conclusion with a real sense of new battles waiting to be fought. With their treasurable disc of the complete Fricker quartets, among others, already under their belt, it is good to know that the Villiers will shortly record the complete string quartets of Alexander Goehr, including String Quartet No. 5 composed as recently as 2018, for issue by Naxos in 2020, together with his Clarinet Quintet. Meanwhile, Fricker's complete organ music is slated for release on the enterprising British Toccata Classics label on April 1. 


“Indubitably Music for Strings”, the Villiers Quartet, Boston Court, Pasadena, 8.00pm, Saturday, March 16, 2019.

Photos: Villiers Quartet: Artists' website; Thea Musgrave and Peter Mark: Thomas Le Brocq; Thea Musgrave and Jack Van Zandt: author photo; Thea Musgrave, 1966: John Vere Brown; Fricker: Picture Post; Alexander Goehr: Courtesy Trinity Hall, Cambridge; Nadia Shpachenko: artist website.

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