Saturday 18 June, New College Chapel
George Xiaoyuan Fu, piano
Drupadhamar – Kirit Singh and Jasdeep Singh
Echéa Quartet with John Myerscough, cello
The second SmorgasChord festival, as the programme informed us, “represents a personal effort to reimagine how culture might be presented in a way that’s more adventurous, palatable and fun!”. The second of the four musical events scheduled during the weekend certainly lived up to the first of those aims.
The evening began with the first three of the thirteen evocations of birds from Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux, a collection of avian portraits in sound that places their subjects within closely defined landscapes and even at certain times of day. George Xiaoyuan Fu helpfully introduced the collection by reading the poems that Messiaen used as his inspiration, and played illustrative extracts of what we were to hear, of both the birds and their surroundings, the former both lyrical and squawkish. And then he plunged with jaw-dropping virtuosity into what Gramophone magazine described as “the extreme demands on the pianist’s physical and mental agility, plus the challenge … of their remorselessly forbidding textures”.
In Chocard des Alpes (Alpine chough), we glimpsed the sinister majesty of a rocky, almost supernatural fortress, Fu’s effortlessly jazzy syncopation merging with the grandeur of the setting. In no. 2, Loriot d’Europe (Eurasian golden oriole), set in an early June morning with golden and rainbow colours, his touch was now delicate, effervescent, as the birds gossiped humorously through the acciaccaturas, and now powerful and permanent, the unresolved bass chords reminding us of Debussy’s Cathédrale engloutie (which Fu was to play the following afternoon). Finally, Le Merle Bleu (Blue rock thrush) reflected the sea, evoking Bali. Here, Fu coaxed so many moods from the piano, from the impetuous to a limpid pianissimo and angular, leaping chords of which Errol Garner might have been proud. The power of nature climaxed with a terrifyingly sonorous, double-handed crash into the lowest register of the piano, the last chord eventually left hanging forever….
The adventure continued with Dhrupad and Dhamar, which the programme identified as “the oldest surviving genres of Hindustani or North Indian classical music”. The continuous harmonic drone was provided by a tanpura, a long-necked plucked string instrument with no frets, supporting the singer, Kirit Singh. The percussionist, Jasdeep Singh, played the pakhavaj and the jori, one- and two-headed drums shaped like small barrels, made of wood and goat skin.
Sadly, neither the programme note, nor the brief introductory remarks of the singer, left the audience much the wiser about the music or the texts they were to hear, except for the facts that this would be “sacred music in a sacred space” and that the two modal pieces were ragas, one for the rainy season and one for later in the evening. Kirit’s gentle, silken voice was often heard alone over the drone, as his weaving, waving hand movements seemed to draw out the very sound itself, his glissando becoming almost an art form. By contrast, the percussion added either a hypnotic, nervous tension or a more dignified, stately beat, beneath the expressive and complex rhythms emanating from beneath Jasdeep’s open hands and fingers. This was eloquent, seamless music with an ethereal beauty.
By this time, the first half had given us almost a whole concert programme, yet even after an hour and a half, we still had the interval to come, and then– almost another hour in itself - Schubert’s great String Quintet in C major, his final work, composed in 1828, shortly before his early death that year at the age of just 31.
It had been a long wait, which may have affected the Echéa Quartet too, joined for this work by their mentor, the cellist John Myerscough. After a hesitant start, with uncharacteristically inconsistent vibrato, the sudden tempo change in the Allegro ma non troppo seemed to revive them, and from then on the quintet played with a striking unity of spirit, communicating so well with each other and showing an uncanny understanding of each other’s musical intentions, always the hallmark of an outstanding ensemble. The breath-taking portamento of the first violin, the pleading coda, the early hints of the anxious dichotomy between major and minor that run through the work, all conveyed a sense that this was to be a performance of both freshness and maturity.
We were not disappointed. The sublime timelessness of the second movement (Adagio) had perhaps given its name to the whole recital. The pizzicato moments in the second cello kept everything grounded, while the duet between cello and first violin and the perfectly balanced chords in the three other strings seemed, fittingly, to emanate from another world. Together with the sudden surges and almost menacing off-beat accompaniment of the central section, the quintet gave to this iconic movement a real sense of narrative, drama followed by loneliness and desolation, before the rapturous return to the home key, peace and salvation.
The rollicking tempo of the ensuing third movement provided adventure and excitement, although at times the power of the extra cello threatened to overwhelm the quartet. There were beautiful duets, and a wonderful warmth in the central section upon which the stone saints of New College Chapel seemed to look down in awed appreciation. The sudden explosion into the recapitulation was bizarrely echoed by explosions from outside, the fireworks only adding to the drama.
There was more non-musical drama to come, as first one and then the other of the electronic tablets replacing the traditional sheet music seemed to pack up. After some emergency repair work by the second violinist, the quintet, like the true professionals they are, picked up where they had left off and took us on the final, headlong, white-knuckle ride to the conclusion, with its uncertain, chilling, final notes that leave us wondering if we are in the company of God or the devil.
The cheering and whooping from members of the audience were well-deserved, many of whom clearly knew the individual players, although not everyone did, and the programme was again less than helpful, requiring a degree of detective work to identify the names of the core members of the truly excellent Echéa Quartet. The brilliant John Myerscough was of course already more widely known. This was a marathon concert of almost three hours: perhaps something to be borne in mind for SmorgasChord 2023?