Red, white and blue bunting, with matching lighting, adorned the balconies of Cheltenham Town Hall, setting a patriotic scene for a concert of music from the year that World War I ended. Television presenter Julia Somerville opened the evening sat at a vintage newsdesk with her own careful research, for which she can be highly commended. She was followed by a number of well-known soloists including Katherine Gowers and Steven Isserlis for an exciting programme of works composed in 1918.

Stephen Isserlis © Satoshi Aoyagi
Stephen Isserlis
© Satoshi Aoyagi

This programme comprised three pieces, ending with Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor – this was what can only be described as a stunning rendition. This piece was performed by a great group of distinguished musicians, all known for their careers as soloists as well as being renowned for their contribution to the world of chamber music. Steven Isserlis, Katherine Gowers, Anthony Marwood, Jennifer Stumm and Connie Shih each brought their own edge to the quintet, but without imposing on the rest of the performers. Pianist Shih gave a notable performance in this piece as the passion of the music overtook her, particularly in the Adagio where a descending passage climaxes the movement. She was so involved in the performance that she stomped her foot in time to some seriously big chords, which added fantastically to the emotion of the performance. Elgar was depressed by the war, having moved to West Sussex in 1917, and this particular rendition of the work reflected the drama of the war that Elgar felt deeply. Marwood and Gowers together created a tight-knit duo on violins within the chamber group, both performing with suitable amounts of vibrato to add to the dramatic effect. Isserlis had an air of nobility on the stage, playing emotionally yet in a positively regal manner on the cello. The energy and power he put into his performance was reflected by the broken hairs on his bow towards the end of the last movement.

The first performance of the evening was Igor Stravinsky’s Suite from The Soldier’s Tale for piano, clarinet and violin. Despite looking at the war from a completely different angle to Elgar, it still had elements of drama, created by the juxtaposed combination of despair and optimism. Marwood and clarinettist Matthew Hunt played off against each other while Connie Shih kept the three of them together on the piano. The opening chords of the ‘Marche du soldat’ were punched out of the three instruments and the beat was regimented with each of the performers moving in a jerky soldier’s motion. The visual aspect of the piece was added to with Marwood’s soldier-like heavily polished dress shoes. The real climax of the suite had to be the Dance du diable, which followed a sultry rendition of the Tango, Valse, Rag. It contains the disjointed chords and repetition for which Stravinsky is so well known, and the trio on stage gave a riveting performance. Fiery and devilish, Shih craned over the piano, her hair flying in all directions, whilst Marwood and Hunt moved dynamically to the complex rhythms. Despite Marwood and Shih having performed outstandingly in the Elgar quintet, this performance gave them a chance to show themselves as soloists. Though the work is adapted from a stage piece for a larger ensemble, this version can easily be treated as a work for three soloists to give their all – in this concert they truly did.

A piece by Max Bruch, written in the last few years of his life, was sandwiched in the middle of the programme. Aged eighty and despite the amount of social and political problems at the time, Bruch had a sudden spurt of creativity which focused on chamber music. It wasn’t his favourite medium but it certainly came naturally to him, and so his String Quintet in A minor was born. An elegant and conservative piece, Bruch captures eloquence and emotion oblivious to the turmoil of the war. The Escher Quartet was accompanied on stage by Jennifer Stumm in a beautiful white Grecian-style dress. Their conservative style as a group reflected the music well. The distinct, mellow tone of Stumm’s playing blended in well with the style of the Escher quartet who always seem to get the balance of vibrato and simplicity just right. The quartet played from paper music, and Stumm had her trusty iPad.

This was a fantastic concert with an essence of nostalgia. The programme contained three wonderful pieces and got the performers for each piece just right. It is great that the ‘time capsule’ series of concerts could keep the performances so varied and interesting, and the concept behind the series is inspiring.

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