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Oxford Coffee Concerts 2019

Weekly concerts from outstanding musicians.
Holywell Music Room, every Sunday 11:15am

Oxford Coffee Concerts continue to take place on Sunday mornings throughout the year in the stunning setting of the Holywell Music Room, the oldest purpose-built concert venue in Europe. And every concert ticket still entitles the holder to a complimentary cup of coffee at the King’s Arms public house at the top of Holywell Street or the Vaults & Garden Café in the High Street.

They now hold a firmly established a place among the foremost chamber music events in the UK, if not the whole of Europe. These days, more than 30 years on, Oxford Coffee Concerts audiences are still as loyal and enthusiastic as ever but are numerous enough to fill the Holywell to capacity nearly every week, so make sure you book on time.

December 23, 2019
Music to lower the frantic festive heartrate and sooth seasonally shredded souls

Viv McLean (piano) and Craig Ogden (guitar), 22nd December 2019

They were queueing out of the doors and the Holywell Music Room was packed to the rafters for the last of this year’s coffee morning concerts. However the audience, from young to old, settled attentively to listen to the opening piece – Viv McLean’s interpretation of Chopin’s Two Nocturne in G Minor Op. 37 No. 1, which turned out to be only one nocturne. But one was enough to lower the frantic festive heartrate and sooth seasonally shredded souls. A sombre melodious bass threaded through the piece, at times teetering on the edge of melancholy and at others offset by teasing notes in the upper range. The nocturne was reminiscent of rain on a window pane until the final timbrous note echoed into silence.

This balm to the spirit was followed by the uplifting notes of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D for strings and lute – and for lute read the rhythm and melody of Craig Ogden’s consummate and exuberant guitar playing. Here in the opening allegro the strings and guitar pass the central ritornello, hoppity skippity, from light-fingered violins to precisely plucked guitar strings - humorously exploring instrumental commonality and tonal differences. In the middle section the guitar asserts itself with gentle strings led by measured guitar tones and the piece concluded with a vivacious allegro with connotations of hot summer nights and wild Spanish tarantellas.

Craig then moved into his solo section of the concert – fittingly for the season going off piste from the programme including his interpretation of Bach’s 5th Cello suite (with formidable fret fingering and persistent plucking) and concluding with a tango full of drama and fully exploiting the repertoire of his guitar playing skills with slapping, knocking and complex fretting executed with flair and precision.

The concert concluded with Saint-Saëns Septet in E flat, Op 65 played by violins, viola, cello, bass, piano and unusually, but intended by the composer, the trumpet. Apparently Saint-Saëns originally thought the inclusion of the trumpet absurd but was eventually cajoled into writing this piece, which proved to be one of his most popular. However mindful of the potentially more strident tones of the trumpet at the opening of the piece he allows the strings and piano to establish themselves before the trumpet's opening, prolonged note perfectly executed by Jon Holland. Throughout the composer is mindful of maintaining harmony and balance amongst the players, allowing different instruments to come to the fore at different times. This is evident by the piano’s opening of the third movement, establishing a rhythm which will act as counter-point to the other instruments more melodic lines throughout the movement. Finally the piece concluded with the joyously driven trumpet gavotte, with roiling bass lines from Jub and plucky staccato strings sinuously winding round the ensemble who then happily threw round notes and melodic themes.

So a typical and stirring concert to conclude this year’s Sunday morning coffee concert series. Everyone from players to the packed audience really relished the morning’s music and the musicians were greatly appreciated by an enthusiastic, foot stomping audience. I eagerly await the start of the 2020 season on 5 January with the charismatic Heath String Quartet playing Beethoven.

September 23, 2019
More Orpheus and Eurydice than Macbeth

Leonore Piano Trio, 22nd Sep 2019

Early Autumn, post-drought rain just spattering the Holywell St pavements as we flooded into the Music Room. Beethoven in the drizzle? A slightly gloomy thought. But no! This was neither the thumping chords of one of the symphonies nor the introspection of some string quartet but two of the piano trios; the first one, Opus 1, No. 1, a rather sunny piece influenced by the optimism of Haydn, Beethoven's early teacher. This and its pair of companions derive from his first maturity, although even at 25 the composer wrote quite a subdued cello part for all three and particularly in respect of this one. Pianist Tim Horton referred at half-time to how, for the most part, the cello either doubles or simplifies the piano left hand, articulating the bass part of the piece's texture, and at times - say in the presto finale - even drops out altogether to allow for a contrasting, lighter texture. This practice accords with that of Haydn and even of Mozart until he came to compose his final trios.

The Leonore Trio were straight into the calm initial theme, following up with the relative melancholy of the 'adagio', Horton showing his mettle with a silk-soft touch of the hands, before Gemma Rosefield's cello and Ben Nabarro's violin combined for a surge of force in their second duet.

By the time Beethoven composed his Opus 70, No. 1, he had his three instruments discourse as equals in kaleidoscopic textures, rich in the contrapuntal interplay that I think characterizes the Viennese classical style. Our trio handled the opening statement, much more sinewy than that of the earlier work, with high energy.

They then moved on to tackle the 'largo assai ed con espressione' which spawned the work’s Ghost nickname and which is, I believe, the slowest movement in all of Beethoven's repertoire, slower for instance than the 'largo' of Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3. I don't think any one of my three recordings of the Ghost movement adheres faithfully to the marked tempo, whereas the Leonores did just that, producing subterranean, left hand piano notes, growling cello and violin output at the very bottom of its range.

Rather than Macbeth's witches that are usually referenced here, I was put in mind more of the tragic story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology. The fragmented themes and sombre tone, with eerie tremolos in the bowels of the keyboard, combined to produce music of great tension whose gloom might have appealed vastly to audience members of a Goth persuasion, had there been any present. As it was, the audience around me presented an interesting study in receptiveness: a few remaining perfectly impassive, others with a smile glued throughout to their lips, yet others leaning forward intently towards the players, desperate to miss not a single note.

An encore of the 'largo' from Op. 1, No. 2 rounded off yet another fine Coffee Concert, the phenomenon now into its 34th, unflagging year.

September 2, 2019
A Hungarian Rhapsody

Daniel Lebhardt, 1st September 2019

On the first official day of autumn, Oxford Coffee Concerts in Holywell Music Room treated us to a memorable performance of Bach, Brahms and Bartok by the talented Hungarian pianist, Daniel Lebhardt.

The first piece was 'Partita no 6 in E minor' by JS Bach. Bach’s set of six 'Partitas', which ‘in its time made a great noise in the musical world’, is based round four dances, Allemande, Corrente, Sarabande and Gigue (Bach deliberately used both French and Italian names to show he used elements of both styles). In 'Partita no 6', the piece starts with a Toccata, a gentle introduction to the dance movements that follow: the solemn Allemande, the grand Corrente, the stately Sarabande and, just before the the lively Gigue at the end, the equally lively Tempo di gavotta. The 'Partita' ends on an upbeat positive note.

In contrast to the bold, confident finale of the 'Partita', Brahms’ 'Klavierstücke Op 119' begins in gentle contemplative mood: Intermezzo adagio. He sent this piece to Clara Schumann seeking her advice, describing it as ‘teeming with discords’. He was concerned that she would not like it but she wrote back describing it as a grey pearl – ‘they look as if they are veiled, and are very precious.’ Each of the four Intermezzos becomes stronger: the second has a sort of urgent quality to it (‘un poco agitato’) although gentle and lyrical too. The third Intermezzo is brighter and almost playful: the piece then ends with an energetic Rhapsodie.

The final piece was Out of Doors (Szabadban) by Bela Bartok. Each of the five parts represents a different set of instruments. It starts with the clash and roar of 'With Drums and Pipes'; this is followed by an almost lyrical 'Barcarolla', the music reflecting the sound of water (the barcarolla is the traditional song sung by Venetian gondoliers). 'Musettes' are an imitation of the bagpipes found in various parts of Europe. In 'The Night's Music' (dedicated to his second wife, a pianist herself), the left hand gives a continuous eerie background to the night noises produced by the right hand. The piece ends with 'The Chase', the music wonderfully portraying the urgency and fear of maybe an animal being pursued.

As an encore we had not one but two pieces: a gentler melodic piece by Bartok based on three traditional dances and another piece by Brahms.

Daniel Lebhardt is a truly wonderful pianist. His lightness of touch as well as his power, his interpretation of the wide range of emotions portrayed, and his sheer musicality are an absolute delight. He is the winner of countless prizes and we are lucky indeed to be able to see and listen to such a virtuoso performer.

August 26, 2019
From Southampton to New York via Buenos Aires

Carducci Piano Trio, 25th August 2019

Haydn wrote his Piano Trio no 39 in G major ('Gypsy Rondo') during his second foray to Britain in 1795; four years after he had appeared at The Sheldonian Theatre to receive an honorary Doctor Musicae degree. The piano has the major rôle, at least in the Andante, backed up by accompaniment from violin and cello. But the Poco Adagio has a yearning melody that gave Matthew Denton's violin a chance to impress, and then he led the whirling Rondo, apparently influenced by colourful folk music. From his base at the castle of Esterhaza in Hungary, Haydn would have been aware of itinerant army recruiting squads who, wanting to lure young men to take the colours, would hire gypsy violinists to play at the recruiting booths while their audience's ears were simultaneously flattered with sweet talk of fancy uniform coats and glory.

Gypsy players of Haydn's day would hold their fiddles low on their chests, whereas Denton threw out his instrument well away to his left-hand side, bursting with animation and even rising out of his seat with emotion.

As in the case of Haydn's opener, the first movement of Mendelssohn's Piano Trio no 1 in D minor is a set of variations on a theme, stated by piano and violin, with the cello mainly doubling the bass line. Yet the cello is awarded a fine opening theme that would seem leisurely were it not for the piano’s agitated chords beneath it – the effect something akin to The Queen Mary sweeping through choppy seas en route from Southampton to New York. The Carduccis played this extended piece with mingled fire and lyrical tenderness; reflective when necessary but not getting bogged down in the sometimes-complicated structure of the music. Pianist Clare Hammond's singing tone and articulation was a delight, and her use of pedal sparing. There was solid balance throughout, with just the right conversational quality between the instruments as each came forward and retreated as the score required.

Primavera Porteña ('spring in the port city') – to South Americans this can refer only to Buenos Aires – from 1970 is one of a four-item series depicting the four seasons by the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla, known principally for his dramatic accordion tango music. Matthew Denton introduced the piece as 'an enforced encore' and while it was redolent of the Argentinian equivalent of a tea dance at the Hammersmith Palais or perhaps the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, it was really too brief to make a great deal of impression. That said, the Carduccis' playing was the most tango-rhythmical of the three versions I listened to in preparation for the concert, and very pleasing on that account.

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