by Alan Cooper
Monday 4th of March
Can it really be the end of another Chamber Music season already? Monday’s final concert was little short of spectacular, setting the seal on another year of first rate performances.
The first part of The London Bridge Ensemble’s programme was devoted to English music and featured one of the great classics of the genre with On Wenlock Edge by Ralph Vaughan Williams. His settings of six poems from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, a collection that raises the English countryside and its ordinary people, their lives and more so their deaths to the kind of heroic timelessness that is intended to match classical world literature which was Housman’s specialist study. This intention by the poet is reflected in his reference to the Roman Soldier who appears in the first poem whose title Vaughan Williams uses for his work.
String quartet, piano and for this performance baritone soloist (the work more often uses a tenor) were the forces used by The London Bridge Ensemble. Ivan Ludlow was the quintessential English baritone with a voice that was warm and with a clear transparency over his entire range. With admirably clean diction he captured all the breadth of dramatic expression that Vaughan Williams has written into the music – hear for instance the distinction between the two voices used in “Is my team ploughing?” and the increasing urgency of the exchange in the final verses where the dead young man begins to suspect what his friend does not want to tell him. That is not there in the bare verse, but it is something that the music adds so brilliantly to the dramatic impact of the piece.
Vaughan Williams makes astonishingly apposite use of his instrumental forces – compare for instance the way in which the full ensemble depicted the storm in the opening poem with the following one where sometimes piano alone was used to support the voice before the strings came in. These were just a few of the wonderfully colourful effects captured so well in this stunningly filmic performance by The London Bridge Ensemble.
This was not the work which opened Monday’s performance however. That position went to a less well-known yet equally worthy work, the Phantasie Quartet in f minor byFrankBridge. There is a book by James Day entitled Englishness in Music which I have always been meaning to get hold of and surely this piece byFrankBridgemust define much of what that idea represents. The pastel shaded harmonies and wind blown counterpoints in the piece had a noticeably English feel to them. Attractive earthy melodies and stirring rhythms made this performance a joy to hear.
After the interval, moreFrankBridgein the shape of Three Songs for voice, viola and piano brought Ivan Ludlow back to the stage along with Tom Dunn, viola and pianist Daniel Tong. The theme of death either overt or merely suggested in these songs linked them to the earlier performance of Vaughan Williams as did the spare but very telling use of instrumentation. I have heard them sung by a soprano but the baritone and viola combination worked particularly well and the strong emotions in the vocal parts were tellingly underlined by the instrumental harmonies.
The final work in the concert was not English at all. Dvoȑák is notable as a composer who actually did write most of the tunes he used yet he manages to make them sound more like folk tunes than many composers who liberally raided the folk archives. His Piano Quartet No. 2 in Eb Op. 87 is packed full of such melodic gems. The second subject of the opening movement was a fine example and its use to bring in the recapitulation was indeed magical. Kate Gould’s cello playing in the Lento was a delight as was the piano towards the end of the movement. The suggestion of happy café music in the third movement with an unusually prominent trio section that suggested one of the composer’s Slavonic Dances and then the cascade of melodies in the finale made this an absolutely triumphant end to our latest season.
See you all again in October!