Sunday 10 March 2013

The Schubert Ensemble: Commissions – Watkins, Cutler, Rushton, Bach-Woolrich, Novák, Knotts, Matthews, and Butler, 9 March 2013

Hall One, Kings Place

Huw Watkins – Piano Quartet (2012)
Joe Cutler – Slippery Music (2010, London premiere)
Edward Rushton – Piano Removal 2 (2013, world premiere)
Bach (arr. John Woolrich) – Five Chorales (2000)
Pavel Zemek Novák – Unisono (Homage to the Bach Family) (2011, London premiere)
David Knotts – Night Song and Garden Quadrille (2010)
David Matthews – Five to Tango (1993)
Martin Butler – American Rounds (1998)

Simon Blendis (violin)
Douglas Paterson (viola)
Jane Salmon (cello)
Peter Buckoke (double bass)
William Howard (piano)
The Schubert Ensemble, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, presented as the culmination of its Kings Place celebrations, a programme comprising eight of the forty-five works it has commissioned, one of which, Edward Rushton’s Piano Quartet, received its world premiere. All eight works received performances of which both players and composers should have been proud; indeed, all but one of the composers, John Woolrich – well, two, if we count one Johann Sebastian Bach – were present in the audience to hear for themselves.

Huw Watkins’s Piano Quartet, premiered at last year’s Spitalfields Festival, emerged as a predictably accomplished single-movement work. Well-crafted and somewhat elegiac in character, its motivic design and working were audibly apparent throughout, doubtless a facet of performance as well as work. I was put in mind of (neo-)Prokofiev at times, though without a second hearing or – preferably – a viewing of the score, I am not sure that I could claim that to be more than a personal correspondence drawn. Joe Cutler’s Slippery Music, first performed at the Cheltenham Festival, opened arrestingly, that opening dominated by often high-lying violin, here played with especial verve by Simon Blendis, and piano. The piece struck me as a highly imaginative – and successfully so – employment of the apparently classical formation of the piano quartet, to heightened ‘dramatic’ ends, yet without an obvious ‘programme’. Even knocking on the wood of the instruments was integrated, not a mere ‘effect’. Edward Rushton’s Piano Removal 2, also for piano quartet, was more overtly programmatic, its five parts corresponding to the shipping of Robert Louis Stevenson’s piano from Edinburgh to the island of Upolu. The first part, with pounding pianoforte and ‘raucous’ – the composer’s word – strings was perhaps the most noteworthy, at least on a first hearing.

If I found myself a little underwhelmed by Rushton’s piece – such is generally the nature of such new music ‘compilation’ programmes – then Bach chorales, courtesy of John Woolrich, delighted, the ensemble now completed by the arrival of double bassist Peter Buckoke. Not for the first time I found myself lamenting how, in these days of ultra-authenticke puritanism, often the only way we are permitted to hear Bach on modern instruments is in transcription, but that is an issue for another day. Woolrich’s often dark reimagination, not unlike that of Ulysses Awakes for Monteverdi, proves faithful and unfaithful, as any true Bach performance should. Tones of Bach’s piano concertos seemed subliminally present in performance, whilst his harmonic genius both shines through in itself and inspires his collaborator(s). Pavel Zemek Novák’s Unisono takes material from various members of the Bach family and presents it in unison, but in some ways transformed rhythmically as well as texturally. If ultimately it does not seem to amount to a great deal more than the sum of its parts, it does not overstay its welcome, and made for a welcome divertissement.

For David Knotts’s Night Song and Garden Quadrille, we lost our pianist. The composer’s programme description opened, ‘I wanted to write a piece which focused on Judy Kleinman’s love of gardening,’ surely the only time that sentence has been formed, whether musically or otherwise. The reference was to Daniel Kleinman’s commission for the birthday of his wife, Judy. The dancing quality of the music indeed seemed matched by its sense of the outdoors, not a wild Romantic landscape, but the manageable, familiar yet always fascinating, world of the garden. David Matthews’s Tango, piano regained, followed in similar vein, an arrangement of the fourth movement of Matthews’s Fourth Symphony. If it seemed more of an occasional work than anything more substantial, there will doubtless always be a call for the former. Martin Butler’s American Rounds, by contrast, sounded over-extended: fine if sub-Copland Americana is your thing, but with apparently little else to engage. It was performed with considerable brilliance, though, and much of the audience seemed to love it.