James Macmillan

The Strad December 2001

Autumn Drizzle

At the Quarteto Casals’s coffee concert in the Wigmore Hall on 9 September, I was disturbed to see second violinist Abel Tomas come on stage first, I was ever more worried w/hen I saw that he was going to lead in the first item. When he actually started playing I was appalled, I heard what amounted to an insult to the music, Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet. Tomás, an excellent second violinist, has neither the tone, nor the flexibility, nor the personality to lead what, up to now, has been one of the most promising quartet ensembles in the world. This silly idea, which came to the Casals players during the summer, is all the more inexplicable when in Vera Martinez Mehner they have such a superb leader, Sure enough, when she led in Brahms’s C minor Quartet order was restored and a lovely performance ensued.

To suggest that anyone can lead a quartet is as crass as to say that anyone can play second violin. Why stop there? Why not have the violinist and the cellist swapping places too? Let such ‘democracy’ be kept for domestic run-throughs or the rehearsal studio.

My two cellists this month were at very different stages of their careers, The BBC lunchtime concert at the Wigmore on the 17th, featuring the established pairing of Julian Lloyd Webber and John Lenehan, took place when we were all still reeling from the events in America.

The artists dedicated their Faure Elegie to victims of violence everywhere and the performance was worthy of the thought, Lenehan launching it with a sombre tread and showing throughout that the piano part was equal to that of the cello, not simply an accompaniment. Lloyd Webber was at his most committed.

The mood spilled over into Brahms’s E minor Sonata, which (pace Gerald Larner’s combative programme note) came over as very bleak and solemn, but memorable, for all that.

Then we had the first London performance of the Cello Sonata no.2 in which James MacMillan continued his assault on the pianos of the world; fortunately, the instrument was played with more finesse than it was in a performance of the First Sonata I heard recently. Despite an accident with the cellist’s music (he otherwise played from memory), the piece made a cohesive impression at a first hearing – written in a seven-section arch form, it is cleverly constructed. The composer was present to hear it very well played.

Richard Harwood, in a Kirckman Concert at the Purcell Room on the 24th, made a positive impression, although he needs to adopt a less apologetic platform manner (especially when coming on stage) and to learn his bread-and-buffer sonatas by heart. When he played Popper’s Hungarian Fantasy from memory as an encore, he was a different cellist.

That said, I enjoyed the renderings of Martinu’s Slovak Variations, Lutoslawski’s Grave and Beethoven’s A major Sonata — with some interesting effects in the latter’s Scherzo — that he and his superb pianist Dominic Harlan delivered. Brahms’s F minor Sonata was given rather a drawn-out, old men’s performance, without the mitigating circumstances of the somewhat sombre Lenehan—Lloyd Webber recital.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the title of Collegium Musicum 90, who gave a Wigmore Hall coffee concert on the 23rd, referred to the players’ age rather than their foundation year. They plodded through trio sonatas by Boyce and Arne without even the frisson of incompetence one used to get from period instruments. I enjoyed the plentiful tuning as much as the performances.

Simon Standage perked up in Handel’s D major Violin Sonata, producing good tone and articulation, but still had his nose buried in the copy. Then suddenly all four players threw off their rigor mortis for the same composer’s G minor Trio Sonata. Micaela Comberti, who had sounded like Sfandage’s shadow all morning, began to play out and harpsichordist Nicholas Pane raised his fingers more than a millimetre above the keyboard.

It took the Ondine Piano Trio from Denmark to make me wish to be back with Collegium Musicum 90 This hyperactive threesome came to the Purcell Room on 2 October trailing clouds of glory, having won every prize ‘n sight, most recently the Parkhouse Award.

Their Haydn C major no.27 was full of exaggerated dynamics and their playing quickly became predictable. Violinist Silk Heide did not match cellist Jonathan Slaatto’s phrasing and emoted so much all evening, it was no surprise that when he had to execute a slow pianissimo bow stroke, he tended to muff it.

As I heard the players overdoing every contrast in Beethoven’s ‘Ghost’ — and failing to catch the mood of the eerie Largo assal – I cast my mind back to the equally young Simer Trio who had played the same two works so much more naturally at the Wigmore recently.

And when the Ondine turned to the Brahms B major I really did wish the trio was underwater, as ifs name implied. Not only did the constant exaggerations become wearisome, but some of the playing in the second and fourth movements was plain ugly.

I was sorry to miss the Leonfoch Quartet (unable to get a flight out of the US) at the Wigmore on 16 September and hearing their Ukrainian compatriot Viktoriya Gregoreva there on the 26th was no compensation. After listening to her thick, ‘ill-tuned, unstylish playing of violin sonatas by Bach and Hindemith, I suddenly remembered a number of things I needed to do at home. Pianist Jill Crossland sounded rather good.

Thank goodness for Lenehan and Lloyd Webber, I say.

Tully Potter

The Independent 19th December 1994


Julian Lloyd Webber

Wigmore Hall, London

There were no frills on offer for Julian Lloyd Webber on Thursday at the Wigmore Hall. No record signings or glossy promo packs. Just an evening of simple, honest music-making, like he always said it should be.

Said it on this page, in fact, over a week ago, in an interview that raised expectations about his style of playing that could only be justified in the act. His programme, with French and Russian classics, new works and old novelties, suggested no lack of ideas. Even so, it was the artist in action who proved his point that playing the cello remains his principal devotion.

He began with Britten’s Sonata in C; a smart choice, for in its spiderery plucked strings and side-glancing melodies he could project the spirit of his musicianship with little chance of going over the top. Elusiveness seems written into the very notes of this piece, and Lloyd Webber came nearest to direct statement in the Elegia, keening cello against acrid, bitonal chords from the pianist John Lenehan. Yet neither here nor in Debussy’s late Sonata were the players working at full pressure, despite a noble view of the Prologue and an encounter with the Serenade that caught the deft instability of its nervous pantomime.

Instead, these works gave a preview of the full picture to come: a tonal range that stretched from the lustrous alto timbre of an antique viola to a crisp, succulent bass, and a rhythmic acumen willingly shared between the two players.

The reward came after the interval, in a faultless reading of Rachmaninov’s testing Cello Sonata. After the bold adventure of its opening bars, the second theme, proposed by Lenehan and propelled by Lloyd Webber through a flight of echoes and asides, stood for the fine coordination of the whole. Gruff tremolos in the scherzo and a fine tune in the slow movement yielded to a finale that relaxed just enough to give the lyrical moments room to breath: it drew lively applause.

For a striking contrast, there was also the premiere of Dream Sequence, Richard Rodney Bennett’s medley of Broadway themes about childhood. And who else but the incomparable Bennett could turn a simple exercise into such art?

His chords had an easy showtime magic; at a push you could work them out at the piano; but never quite the chords he chose, and in such exquisite order. Lloyd Webber’s rapt pianissimo was an asset both here and in the plainsong world of another premiere, James MacMillan’s Kiss on Wood; bright piano chords like flashes of lightning; then silence; then a winding chant for cello, stretched out on the rack of more silence to end on a prie-dieu of comforting harmonies. MacMillan’s vision of the cross was serene yet questioning and, like the Bennett, a significant plus for the cello repertoire.

A bouquet of salon music rounded off the evening: Cyril Scott’s Pastoral and Reel and Lullaby and Frank Bridge’s scherzo. These are composers who are polished and passionate. yet often undervalued. A bit like Lloyd Webber? No longer, on the evidence of this wholesome plum-pudding of a concert.

Nicholas Williams