A Start with a Flourish

BenyounesI always eagerly await the new season from Milverton Concert Society, and this year’s first concert proved to be a great start. Zara Benyounes leads the quartet bearing her name, and the four young ladies (although their publicity picture shows a man!) entertained us splendidly. The incisive opening and clarity of line in Haydn’s ‘Emperor’ Quartet was indicative of what was to come, an evening of lovely music, very well played. In the first movement their ensemble was very close-knit; they were all watching each other like hawks and it paid off. I particularly liked the rustic section with a lovely ‘drone bass’ from the ‘cello.

The second movement is the theme and variations on what we call ‘Austrian Tune’ in the church hymnary, and oddly enough I didn’t hear the tune very well in the opening statement. The first violin was a little too reticent and the other lines dominated. Again, in the first variation, where the tune is given to the second violin (Emily Holland), Zara’s decorative arpeggios were not always cleanly articulated. From then on however, the ensemble sound was much better – the ‘cello of Kim Vaughan was beautifully soulful in the 2nd variation, as was violist Sara Roberts’ contribution in the 3rd.

The third movement minuet doesn’t quite pass the “Are you the O’Reilly” test’ (there’s a Google project for you) but it was played with great elegance. I could visualise the bewigged gentlemen and ladies in their courtly dances. The stormy final movement got off to a forceful and exciting start, and the brilliantly accurate ensemble was maintained throughout even the most rapid and demanding passages – a tour de force.

Next the quartet was joined by pianist Jeremy Young, a man whose musical reputation is of the highest quality and deservedly so. Their first joint offering was Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 12 in A, which the composer himself published in the quintet arrangement we heard. The balance with the strings was absolutely spot-on throughout, thanks to Jeremy’s very intelligently limited use of the pedal, and not letting the modern Yamaha’s powerful bass output overpower the texture. The first movement cadenza was a virtuoso performance in itself – I asked him at the interval about the cadenzas, and they were all also by Mozart. In the minor key section of the lovely second movement (and its cadenza) there were some very adventurous modulations for a relatively early work, Mozart obviously trying out new effects.

I loved the final movement, with gorgeous lightly skipping piano playing. Where the strings were playing in unison they sounded like one instrument and the whole piece romped to a sprightly and exciting finish.

After the interval we were treated to one of the masterpieces of the piano quintet repertoire, the sumptuous Opus 81 of Dvorak. This work is absolutely chockfull of lovely tunes spilling over one another. From the rich ‘cello opening onwards we heard a solid, beautiful sound, full of dramatic urgency, the wonderful writing fully exploited and presented for our sheer enjoyment.

There are no inequalities in this work – Dvorak gives everyone a chance to shine and lead the ensemble. All five players were well up to the task and this opening movement produced wonderful contrasts between the dramatic and lush passages and the more tranquil sections, all beautifully balanced between the players.

The lower strings shone in the melancholy tune which opens the second movement. I loved the sheer elegance of the playing in the flowing second subject, and was particularly taken with the two-note arpeggios from the strings over Jeremy’s limpid piano sound. The livelier dance section was a joy, the precision of the ensemble even in the fiercest accelerando bars a revelation.

I gave up taking notes for the jolly, dancing scherzo and the exuberant finale – I knew I was not going to find anything to criticise, so I just sat back and enjoyed the glorious music, superbly played. Thanks to the Society for once more bringing us players of not just the highest technical brilliance, but true artists, able to communicate their joy and love of music in their performance.

More, please.

Review by Harold W. Mead