Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Recollected in Tranquillity

In the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads William Wordsworth wrote a famous passage that defines Romantic art:
I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
I've been thinking about this a lot in the past few weeks, while listening to this recording by the Trio Shaham Erez Wallfisch over and over - way more than I normally do when reviewing a disc. That's partly because I love this music so much, but perhaps I was waiting for my own tranquillity in the face of such passionate music to gradually disappear, resulting in the sublimity everyone has come to expect from Dean's reviews.

As it happens I was recently watching episode 11 of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, "The Worship of Nature", on YouTube. There was Clark quoting Wordsworth in front of Tintern Abbey, and, at about 21:00, the second movement of Brahms' Double Concerto played over scenes of the beautiful English countryside.

Watching this on TV back in 1970 or 71, I was struck by the beauty of the music, and its perfect match with the landscape and Wordsworth's poetry. It's stayed with me ever since. I hadn't noted then Clark's odd anachronism of pairing the 1798 poem with a piece written in 1887, but it still seems to fit perfectly. It's also odd that a piece characterized at the time as "unapproachable and joyless, ... obstinate and mechanical, ... cold and rigid..." should have become a by-word for the perfection of romantic feeling expressed in Wordsworth's poetry.

Perfection of romantic feeling is indeed a phrase I would use for this performance by cellist Raphael Wallfisch, violinist Hagai Shaham and the Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie under conductor Daniel Raiskin. Eschewing the larger-than-life heroics of the famous (I almost said infamous, but didn't) Ma/Perlman/Barenboim version, this is integrated and controlled but not careful, with obvious love for Brahms and his music from everyone involved.

As to the piano trios, I very much agree with Jessica Duchen, who in an ArtsDesk review of a January 2016 Wigmore Hall concert praised the Trio SEW's classic musicianship: "These performers evoke musical values that today are beginning to seem 'old school', yet are as sterling solid as ever." I know I should let that sentence stand by itself, but this whole paragraph by Jessica, with its emotional response in whatever tranquility might exist while writing to deadline, is very apt for my own review:
After the interval Rachmaninov's very early, one-movement Trio élégiaque No 1 offered a powerful dose of exquisite melancholy before the trio let rip with the magnificence of Brahms's C major Trio Op 87. It’s a piece that suits this group down to the last semiquaver, matching maturity, assurance, technique and good nature throughout its journey. Notable qualities that leapt out of this performance included the choice of contrasting palettes in the scherzo, the long lines of violin and cello offsetting the whirling interjections of the piano, and a breathtaking episode in the finale in which Erez’s piano tone turned utterly luminous, as if by magic.
Looking backwards from the Double Concerto of 1887 to the three Trios (op. 101 of 1886, op. 87 of 1880-82, and op. 8 of 1854) we see layers of nostalgia and regret peeled back until we have the relatively raw longing of the first Trio, written soon after Brahms met Clara Schumann. Shaham, Erez and Wallfisch don't oversell this; they recognize and communicate a guarded response by Brahms to these powerful emotions. Even here, though, we have another layer, since the version we all know of this marvellous piece is Brahms' revision of 1886. In this veiled Romanticism the layers add up!

So we end at the beginning. Here is a marvellous video of a live performance of the op. 8 Trio, from Rotterdam in 2014.

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