Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Wu Quartet perform Haydn, Mendelssohn, Dvořák and a 'reconstructed' Bach organ concerto with Exeter Organist Emeritus Paul Morgan Powderham Castle Friday 7 October

The Wu Quartet prepare backstage -
in the Powderham Castle Library
2nd violin Victoria Mavromoustaki
1st violin Qian Wu
viola Matthew Kettle
'cello Joe Zeitlin
Once again Professor George Pratt, curator and 'kapellmeister' at Powderham Castle, has put on a spectacular classical concert to match the spectacular setting of Powderham's James Wyatt music room.

George far exceeds the requirements of his sponsors to make the make the music room and its priceless 1769 Bryce Seede organ accessible to the public. Every year there are at least five of George's Georgian soirées featuring outstanding visiting musicians and, of course, music of some kind played on his beloved Bryce Seede organ.

As always George had prepared extensive programme notes for the concert, clearly explaining the history of the music that would be played, and the music itself. (As emiritus professor of music, George is in his element here.)

The notes on the quartet were, in a sad way, a little out of date by the time of Friday's concert. The Wu Quartet are led by first violin Qian Wu from Shanghai, and her second violin is usually Edward Brenton. However, Edward was not able to perform on Friday, owing to illness, and his place was taken by a wonderful Greek Cypriot violinist, Victoria Mavromoustaki. Qian and Victoria were joined by regular violist and 'cellist, Matthew Kettle and Joe Zeitlin.

The Quartet have won many prizes for their musicianship since they got together in 2007, most recently at the Sommerakademie and the Beijing International. It was a rare priviledge for the people of Devon to be able to see and hear their very special talents in a live performance.

The Wu Quartet played three quartets by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Dvořák, each representing the final apocolyptic outburst of genius by a man of each generation reaching the tragic end of his career - and ironically producing some of their most inspired work.

Each piece reflects the grief of successive generations, the overwhelming anticlimax and exhaustion for Haydn after the completion of  'Creation', the devastating blow to Mendelssohn of losing his beloved sister - which led to his own untimely death, and the return of Dvořák to Europe from his American tour to be faced with the final illness and death of his wife Anna's sister Josefina Čermáková - with whom Dvořák had fallen in love even before he met Anna.

The pieces were played in chronological order, demonstrating a century of musical development.  Haydn's 'Lobkowitz Quartet', dedicated to his (and Beethoven's) patron, was composed at the turn of the nineteenth century, only thirty years after the James Wyatt music room was completed, and it is possible to imagine an early performance of the work at the castle. Mendelssohn takes us into the middle of the nineteenth century, and Dvořák to the turn of the twentieth.

Each piece was delivered to the utmost ability of all four players, and their total concentration and coordination between the instruments was delightful to watch - and hear. Qian Wu played the most demanding melodic lines and could be seen putting all of her energy into the increasingly intricate music, to amazing effect. The other players also had their own exciting and moving parts to add - with amazing individual and collaborative skill.

Haydn's quartet was full of rapid and skillful changes of mood and interplay between the instruments. Mendelssohn changed the mood entirely with a very ominous and brooding opening passage - understandable in view of his tragic circumstances - but the music built rapidly to a feverish intensity which continued relentlessly through each movement with endless excitement.

Then followed the traditional Powderham concert interval - wine and soft drinks served to the audience members as they relax by an enormous roaring log fire in the oak panelled splendour of the Charles Fowler dining hall.

After a suitable length of time, to reflect on the gorgeous music so far, the music began again. Before the Dvořák, however, there was a special additional item on the programme. Exeter Cathedral's organist emeritus, Paul Morgan, joined the Quartet for a Bach 'concerto' for string quartet and organ.

Organist Emeritus Paul Morgan
played a specially arranged
Bach organ concerto
with the Wu Quartet
As George explained so succinctly, Bach himself, while working as a Lutheran kapellmeister, would not have considered a secular piece, such as a concerto, a suitable vehicle for his organ compositions. However, the organ music he composed for his cantatas lends itself well to the 'reconstruction' of what we imagine a Bach organ concerto would have sounded like.

Paul was understandably apprehensive about playing alongside the magnificent Wu Quartet. However, a cathedral organist of Paul's experience is quite equal to the challenges of a relatively simple chamber organ - even one with the special difficulties and idiosyncrasies of the pre-repair Bryce Seede organ.

Paul's opening allegro was played mainly in the delicate higher register of the organ, while the four string players restricted their volume with admirable restraint in order to allow the organ to be heard. The attenuated string playing was in stark contrast to the vigour of the Mendelssohn they had just played, and blended sweetly with Paul's deft organ phrases. Joe Zeitlin's infinitessimal 'cello notes fitted perfectly under the melody almost giving the impression of the bass pipes of the organ itself.

The adagio was taken from Cantata 156, itself possibly derived from an oboe concerto. The organ notes were deeper and louder, the slow measured phrases being echoed by the 'cello with the barest touches on the other strings. As the last note came Paul sustained it, with Joe doing likewise on the 'cello. By screwing himself round on his seat, Paul was able to make eye contact with Joe to coordinate a perfectly timed close.

The final presto was perfect for the organ. Each phrase developed on its predecessor, setting the pace, and was followed assiduously by the strings.

What a great opportunity to hear the organ - and to admire the accomplished playing of our organist emeritus - the 'organ concerto' was a delightful interlude in the proceedings, and very much appreciated by the audience.

In the final work of the recital, Dvořák added an overwhelming wealth of new ideas and techniques to the quartet format. From the opening movement, cascades of soft sound alternated with strident and angry passages. Joe Zeitlin's 'cello part detoured regularly into pizzicato embelishment and even guitar style strumming.

The incredible energy of the first movement ended so firmly it seemed to be the end of the concert, but then the adagio began in a contrastingly solemn mood. Qian's melody was deeply moving and eerily contrasted by a spooky pianissimo pizzicato line for Victoria Mavromoustaki on the second fiddle. Joe added a new and disturbing element - endlessly repeated 'double-taps' on a single note, the whole effect sombre and reflective.

The molto vivace started with another abrupt change - Matthew Kettle playing repeated notes with incredible rasping force on the viola, like the throbbing of a powerful engine, tempered by sensitive pizzicato and bowed melody from Joe's 'cello.

The final movement started as a soft andante and was systemetically built up by Qian, with the other players following closely behind, to the final allegro con fuoco - with fire! Complicated and energertic, the finale was also very tender with subtle shifts of mood. Ensemble pizzicato playing led into delightfully expressive duets and trios between the players - almost too fast to follow. Qian's melodies rode the waves of mesmerising sound from the other instruments right to the final impressive crescendo.

The Wu Quartet are a hit!
The end of another splendid classical concert
in the baroque music room at Powderham
The Wu Quartet amazed everyone throughout their recital, with their beautiful music and their impressive poise and style. The feelings of the four composers were reflected perfectly in the music, which was imbued with the stunning quality of truly professional musicianship throughout. The addition of the Bryce Seede organ - played so adeptly by Paul Morgan - made the evening's entertainment complete.

Many thanks to the Trustees of the 1769 Organ Restoration Fund and their sponsors for putting on another spectacular evening of music. Special thanks to George Pratt for welcoming the public into the sumptuous historical setting of the James Wyatt music room - and for contributing his extensive personal knowledge and experience of music - and for his loving care in preserving the organ and keeping it in active use.

Followers of the organ restoration project will know that the full restoration is now planned for the end of 2012. Meanwhile there will be several more concerts in the James Wyatt music room - with a starring rôle for the historic Bryce Seede organ.

Tuesday 6th December: a concert of music for Advent and Christmas -
                    The Choir of Exeter Cathedral directed by Andrew Millington

Friday 16th March: a celebration of Bach and Buxtehude

May: a baroque medley of Bach, Handel
     and a lesser known baroque composer from Ashburton - William Chapple

October: while the organ is taken away for restoration -
                    a 'cello recital by Colin Jackson

For more details, and to join the mailing list for future concerts, contact:

Powderham concerts regularly sell out, so joining the mailing list and becoming a 'Friend of Powderham' is a great way, not only to receive advance notice of concerts, but also to have the advantage of early booking.

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