A Sunday afternoon Queen’s Hall event is usually a more intimate affair than an evening concert; only the downstairs level is open and, although the Side Stalls on this occasion were fairly sparsely populated, the Centre Stalls were full with attentive and responsive audience members. The intimacy suited this SCO Chamber concert, an event of gradually increasing forces from solo, through duo, to sextet.

Joseph Swensen © Ugo Ponte
Joseph Swensen
© Ugo Ponte

SCO Principal Cello David Watkin opened with Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G BWV 1007. I was very taken with Watkin’s avoidance of rigid metre in his account of the Prelude, especially given that five dance movements were about to follow. It allowed space to highlight the movement’s adventurous harmony and to bring out those bass notes which surprise and delight the ear no matter how many times one has heard the piece. Articulation and subtle voice leading made for an expressive Allemande before a fleet-of-foot Courante led us to a haunting Sarabande. Imaginative use of dynamics enlivened not only the major/minor contrast in Menuets I and II but also the reprise of first. There was hearty and sustained applause at the close of a vigorous Gigue.

A composer’s centenary celebrations provides the opportunity to come across not only unfamiliar music but also enlightening biographical information. Conrad Wilson’s programme note for Britten’s 1950 Lachrymae Op. 48a describes how the composer, having forgotten his promise of a new piece for violist William Primrose, claimed during a telephone inquiry that the piece was in the post. He then dashed off the 14-minute work the same evening – this in a pre-software era. Many of us would struggle simply to copy out a work of this duration in an evening.

Based on John Dowland’s 1597 song, If my complaints could passions move, the work for viola and piano comprises a set of variations culminating in a final revelation of Dowland’s lachrymose theme. Even those new to the work, as I was, would be able to spot appearances of the song's opening three notes, which match those of The White Cliffs of Dover. The variations allow the violist to explore a variety of techniques and sound worlds including chords, pizzicato, double stopping, harmonics and, most thrillingly, one passage of sustained frenetic bowing. SCO Principal Viola Jane Atkins gave a committed and captivating performance, occasionally employing a lowered stance when ‘digging in’ to the notes during more animated passages.

Many recent centenary celebration performances have caused me to reconsider and avoid the word “accompaniment” in Britten’s music. The piano part, very musically supplied here by Aaron Shorr, often seemed to follow a path related to but independent from the viola part. What impressed me here was that Atkins and Shorr seemed to be enacting a shared understanding of the piece and could therefore take their cues through listening rather than by means of visual signals. I was very taken with this piece and this performance, and have since revisited it, along with Britten’s 1976 version where piano is replaced by strings.

I was tickled by a phrase in Conrad Wilson’s programme note for the second half's only work, Brahms’ 1865 String Sextet No. 2 in G major Op. 36: “Though eternally devoted to Clara Schumann, he had allowed himself to become temporarily engaged to Agathe von Siebold”. The name is important as the opening Allegro non troppo contains the musical cipher, AGAHE (German musical nomenclature for AGABE).

Led by SCO Conductor Emeritus Joseph Swensen (who had conducted an SCO concert on this stage just three days previously) the sextet of two violins, two violas, two cellos, gave a joyous performance. One of the most brimming moments occurs in the opening movement - the life-affirming second theme which rang out from David Watkin’s cello. The ensuing development of this theme features three successive statements of the Agathe cipher.

Ever-enigmatic, Brahms’ Scherzo is in the minor and at a slower tempo than the title's joviality would suggest. However, the Trio, marked Presto giocoso, more than makes up for this in both in tempo and tonality, switching to the tonic major. The contrast in mood was very well brought out here. The closing Poco allegro, enlivened by many virtuosic descending scale passages passing through the sextet, was an infectiously energetic conclusion. This energy had had clearly transmitted to the audience who responded with sustained applause and cheering. Those who worry about classical music’s future audiences may have been heartened to spot, as I did, two young boys jumping up and down applauding, hands above their heads. Perhaps they’d merely benefited from the extra hour afforded by the clocks changing, but they looked happier than could be accounted for by mere sleep.

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