LUCY HEWSON: Second Violin




Monday 11thMarch, 2019


The final concert in the current season of promotions by Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts was given by an all-girl group, Ensemble Burletta, effectively a string quartet plus clarinet. Theirs was an attractively melodious programme beginning with two arrangements by Mozart of Bach Fugues for string quartet. The clarinet player was yet to come onstage. The first of the Fugues, in d minor, taken by Mozart from No. 8 in d# minor from the Well-tempered Clavier was remarkably clear and delicate in Monday’s performance. The following Fugue in D taken from No. 5 in the same book was played faster and with an extra touch of vigour. These provided the strings and indeed the audience with a fine warm up before clarinettist Shelley Levy joined the ensemble for what turned out to be one of the most immediately attractive pieces in the concert, the Clarinet Quintet op. 107 by Hans Gál. Originally from Vienna (Gál was born in a small village near Vienna). Being from a Jewish family, he had to flee from the Nazis and came first to London with the intention of moving to the United States. However, he stayed in Britain where he met Donald Tovey who invited him to come to Edinburgh where he worked as a lecturer in the Department of Music at Edinburgh University. He had already been a well known composer in Austria and in Germany and along with his work as a teacher, he continued to compose. The Clarinet Quintet op. 107 which the Ensemble Burletta played today was composed in 1977. Hans Gál’s compositional style is wholly tonal like the pre-serial music of Schoenberg or even Webern before they embraced atonal styles. It is very much his own, however.

For many years in the twentieth century, tonal compositions were sneered at both by critics and musicologists (although audiences tended not to like atonal music). This is possibly one reason why Hans Gál’s music more or less disappeared from concert programmes. Now in the 21stCentury however, tonality is coming back into fashion and composers who never ‘went atonal’ are getting a second chance of concert coverage. Groups like Ensemble Burletta and indeed promoters like Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts are to be lauded for bringing composers like Hans Gál back into the limelight.

The Clarinet Quintet opened with a flourish from the clarinet and then the strings. The first movement was full of gently rhapsodic music with delicious melodic lines, pleasing harmonies and counterpoints played lusciously by the ensemble. The strings opened the second movement while the clarinet sang out beautifully with short warm sections for the strings alone. The final movement opened with the cello and then all the strings but the clarinet did not come in until the allegro. This gave us sunny cheery music sometimes with an almost fairy-like lightness in parts. This provided a happy conclusion to a very attractive piece.

The Ensemble Burletta continued with a tonal work by another Viennese émigré,Joseph Horovitz for whom the Ensemble actually played his piece recently at a private concert. As we were told, it is full of fun and life. It began with deliciously sinuous playing by clarinettist Shelley Levy. Lively music later on was interrupted by a fugue, suggesting a moment of good humour from the composer. Based on Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet it carries through Weber’s own humour and amplifies it delightfully.

The final work in the official programme was the Clarinet Quintet op. 115 by Brahms. Both the previous works for clarinet and strings put the clarinet largely out front, not quite as a concerto instrument but sort of getting there in different sections of the music. The first movement of the Brahms Quintet is totally different. Here the clarinet is very much absorbed into the five instrument blend along with the strings. It does rise to the surface now and then but no more than the other instruments. The Ensemble Burletta managed to deliver this blending superbly well. In the Adagio second movement, the clarinet was joined in passionate Hungarian flavoured style with Katalin Kertész’s lovely honeyed violin while the other strings murmured caressingly in the background.

The third movement, Andantino, was played flowingly by all five musicians with the clarinet just floating on top. The opening of the finale flowed on from the previous movement to begin with. It was a series of variations with ever more enthusiastic playing although it ended rather gently with Brahms possibly paying tribute to the smoothest tones of the clarinet.

There had to be an encore after this. Actually there were two! The first was another piece by Brahms, his Hungarian Dance No. 5. The ensemble played this in red hot gypsy style. Shelley Levy was particularly brilliant. A fellow audience member said after the concert, “I wish they had given us more of this!” The second encore we were told was ‘a surprise’, and indeed it was – a tribute to the City which had welcomed the Ensemble so warmly – it was their version of The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen’. It provided a splendid conclusion to the round up of this season’s concerts. We start again in October. Hope to see you all again then!

Ensemble Burletta – 11th March 2019: Review