Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Tiberghien/Britten Sinfonia - Debussy, Richard Harrold, Thomas Adès, and Fauré, 17 February 2009

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Debussy – Sonata for violoncello and piano
Richard Harrold – Ink (British premiere)
Thomas Adès – ‘Court studies’ from The Tempest
Fauré – Piano trio in D minor, op.120

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
Jacqueline Shave (violin)
Caroline Dearnley (violoncello)
Joy Farrall (clarinet)

Each of the Britten Sinfonia’s lunchtime concerts presents a newly commissioned work alongside other chamber or ensemble works; each, moreover, is curated by an established British composer, who selects a younger composer as recipient for the commission. Last month, we had Oliver Knussen and Ryan Wigglesworth; this time, it was the turn of Thomas Adès and Richard Harrold.

Harrold’s Ink had been premiered in Krakow at the weekend, so this was its second performance. Scored for violin, ’cello, clarinet, and piano, it is described by the composer as a ‘neo-baroque study of rhythm and asynchrony’. In the busy opening section, it was unsurprising therefore that it was Stravinsky who sprang to mind, especially the Stravinsky of Dumbarton Oaks. The performance was appropriately metronomical: Stravinsky’s peculiar vision of Bach has a great deal to answer for. A slower section follows, characterised by slow, somewhat mysterious piano chords, whose harmonies were sometimes suggestive of Debussy and perhaps even Schoenberg. Cédric Tiberghien’s beautiful touch and discreet legato pedalling served this music extremely well. The other three instruments develop this material, soon rejoined by the piano, enabling the music to gather pace and the opening, angular voice to be restored. Harrold’s quoted ‘asynchrony’ most strongly characterises the concluding bars: slower again, but with disruptive outbursts. This was well-crafted music, well performed, even if it was difficult to detect an individual voice. That said, this was my first encounter with Harrold’s music, let alone with this piece, so perhaps my ears need time to adjust. So young a composer has, in any case, plenty of time in which to develop.

Adès certainly can lay claim to a distinctive voice. Yet I have often wondered, as again I did here, what he is actually saying with it: shades of Schoenberg’s ‘A Chinese poet speaks Chinese, but what is he saying?’ There is an accomplished, self-conscious brilliance to this music, ‘transcribed ... freely’ for the same forces as Harrold’s piece, from The Tempest, but what lies behind the facade? I had asked myself much the same about Adès’s opera, although the instrumental suite naturally avoided the mother work’s vocal infelicities. Even when the harmonies begin to sound more reflective, they soon become predictable. There is, of course, a playfulness typical of the composer’s work – and very well captured by the performers – but, whilst playing on the ruins of tonality is all very well, it is hardly sufficient in itself.

At least, however, Ades’s music evinces more bite than that of Fauré. A self-conscious distancing from Teutonic tradition is very much part of Adès’s persona – but there might be more worthy candidates for inclusion in such a programme than Fauré’s late piano trio. It goes nowhere in particular, for quite some time. Again, it was well performed, once Caroline Dearnley had – quickly – surmounted some early intonational difficulties. Yet the blandness of the harmonies, even in the final Allegro vivo, which at least boasts greater rhythmic interest, is for me the abiding memory of the piece. It ought to appeal to those members of the English musical establishment who devoted vast swathes of programming time last year to a forlorn attempt to convince the rest of us – and perhaps even themselves – that Vaughan Williams was anything but a minor composer. (It will not, since Fauré was not English.) Tiberghien’s pianism proved on its own terms most impressive, whether in the rippling opening of the first movement or the relatively more virtuosic passages of the finale.

Such musicianship was far better served, however, by Debussy’s ’cello sonata, with which the concert had opened. Tiberghien’s alternation between the virile and the feline perfectly captured the ambiguities of the first movement. Both he and Dearnley showed keen ears not only for the composer’s harmonies but for their rhythmic and structural implications. Shades of old France – Debussy was by now signing himself ‘musicien français’ – were apparent without emblazoning them. The ensuing Sérénade was, if anything, still more impressive, its haunting uncertainty sometimes blossoming into lyricism, yet with appropriate hesitation. Dearnley’s pizzicato and Tiberghien’s bass-register staccato proved a good match, so as not only to imitate but also to blend. Rhythmic control in the finale was impressive, as the sonata reached a duly exciting, yet unexaggerated conclusion. If Tiberghien unsurprisingly remained the musically dominant partner, Dearnley’s performance also impressed, especially when her instrument was singing upon the upper reaches of the A string. The sonata was for me the definite highlight of the concert.

This concert was recorded for subsequent broadcast on BBC Radio 3.