The Music Room, Gregynog, 21 June 2016
Two concerts from the Gregynog Festival
Ensemble Nevermind : afternoon
Anna Besson, flute
Louis Creac’h, violin
Robin Pharo, viola da gamba
Jean Rondeau, harpsichord
Daniel Grimwood : evening
Broadwood Square Piano
Gregynog Hall is a treasure in the heart of Wales, a magnificent building in and around which Rhian Davies has been weaving musical magic for the past decade as Musical Director of one of the most highly recommended music festivals in the UK. This year’s programme, Éire, is inspired by the centenary of the Easter Rising, but journeys far beyond that to encompass not only Irish-Welsh cultural connections but also to draw in some composers and performers from further afield who have been touched by Irish musical magic.
Ensemble Nevermind is a breathe of fresh air in the field of early music. The four musicians met at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, and their impetus to play together came from their friendship. This shone through in their Wales début performance at Gregynog, an afternoon concert in which their shared sense of fun was palpable. Their programme took its title and starting point from Dublin in 1724, the date of the first collection of Irish tunes to be published in the British Isles. Before this, Irish, Scottish and English melodies had not been differentiated in collections printed in London and Edinburgh.
Composers of ‘art’ music influenced by Irish folk melodies included the Italian Francesco Geminiani, who lived in Dublin for some time from 1733 and opened a Concert Room there. His work A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick (1749) contained a number of Scottish tunes, including the Airs Lady Ann Bothwell’s Lament and Sleepy Body. Nevermind included these in their programme, along with songs and sonatas from the same collection.
Flautist Anna Besson, introducing the pieces, said that she was convinced that Geminiani had also drawn on traditional Irish music, although she had only found two sources for this, one a reference to him hearing bad flute music in a pub in Dublin! She also told us that she had been passionate about Irish music herself since the age of nine, when her father gave her a CD of the folk musician Michael McGoldrick playing the Irish flute. That gave her the desire to play the music herself and to learn how to ornament it authentically. In due course her teacher in this was flautist Emer Maycock, herself also in the line-up at this year’s Gregynog Festival. Anna Besson has continued to explore links with other Irish musicians, and included in this programme an arrangement of the traditional lament An Buachaillín Bán, which she learned from the Irish singer Karan Casey.
Anna Besson’s passion for this music shone through not only in the way she spoke about it but also in her sensitive and expressive playing, matched by that of her three colleagues as they passed the music between them. In their hands the divisions between ‘traditional’ and ‘baroque’ music were shown to be unnecessary, indeed meaningless. Nevermind bring their own interpretation to the material, and it is one which communicates the spirit of the music very strongly. As they segued beautifully from John Playford to Geminiani and through music by John Walsh, William Byrd and Nicola Matteis to a tune from John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and back to Geminiani’s Betsy Bell the music was all one. Not that it was all the same, not at all!
The music which Nevermind chose for this programme might have passed mostly unremarked if played by an average chamber group in, let us say, the Pump Room in Bath. In the charming domestic setting of Gregynog Hall’s Music Room, and with the rapport between these four outstanding young musicians, all the colours of the music were revealed: Jean Rondeau produced suitable craziness from the harpsichord for Byrd’s The bagpipe and the drone; Robin Pharo drew sounds from the gamba not within the repertoire of the average consort player; Louis Creac’h and Anna Besson demonstrated superb unison playing of violin and flute. I particularly enjoyed a sumptuous ‘Ground for the Flute’ from The Division Flute, a collection of variations on folk songs published in 1706 by John Walsh, an Englishman of Irish descent who also published works by Corelli, Geminiani’s teacher.
Showing even more of their range Nevermind gave us as encores the haunting Women of Ireland by the 20th century Irish composer Seán Ó Riada and a taste of the music on their debut CD with a Largo by the French Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Quentin.
The second concert of the day also explored compositional links between traditional tunes and classical music, though in a later musical period and in relation to the development of the piano as an instrument.
Introducing the concert, pianist Daniel Grimwood said that, delighted to have this opportunity to showcase the work of the Dublin-born composer John Field, he had originally proposed a (metaphorical) journey from Dublin to St Petersburg on a grand piano. However, an alternative suggestion to play on his square piano had taken him on a different musical journey, and one which he clearly relished sharing with his audience.
In the mid 1700s most of the keyboard music published could be played on either harpsichord or the newly-developed and inexpensive square piano, and it was not, Daniel Grimwood told us, a foregone conclusion that the piano would take precedence for keyboard players in the future. The first sign of a change was the introduction of a sustaining pedal for the square piano. So it was that music such as John Field’s Nocturnes became instrument-specific. Daniel Grimwood’s Broadwood square piano dates from 1801 but had only had a sustaining pedal added the very day before the concert. This did not seem to impede his performance but did add some knocking which I fondly imagined at first to be woodpeckers at work in the Gregynog woods!
Daniel Grimwood opened his concert with a Lesson which John Field may have played as a child when being taught by its composer, Tommaso Giordani. When he was nine years old Field made his performance debut as a pianist at a concert put on by Giordani at the Rotunda in Dublin. The rest of the concert was book-ended by pieces by Field. Reminding us of Field’s influence on Chopin, who definitely made use of indigenous folk music themes in his music, Daniel Grimwood played Field’s Sonata No 1 in E flat major, the second movement of which conjures up sounds of the hurdy-gurdy and the fairground. A Nocturne by Field’s pupil Glinka from 1828, scored for piano or harp, demonstrated how the rapidly developing keyboard aesthetic was led by composers and responded to by piano-builders, rather than the other way round.
The composer Pinto showed his admiration for Handel by taking his forenames George Frederick and by writing the second movement of his Sonata in C minor in Handelian style, but the work is actually dedicated to his ‘friend John Field’. The exuberance and experimentation of the outer movements are such that one wonders whether, had he not died young, he might have gone on to rival the musical achievements of Field’s teacher Clementi, whose Sonata in F-sharp minor concluded the first half of this fascinating programme. The relationship between Field and Clementi is one which would have been explored had Daniel Grimwood pursued his original concert proposal, but by all accounts it was sadly not a happy one from Field’s point of view, and what he might have composed had he not stayed in St Petersburg is an open question.
Returning to the present, Daniel Grimwood opened the second half of his concert with a work from a contemporary Irish composer, Ailís Ní Ríain. This piece, Linger, was written as an installation to be played as overlapping recordings in different rooms of the Brontë Parsonage in Yorkshire. Interesting as it was conceptually, for me it sat rather awkwardly and inconsequentially in the programme, having only tenuous links to anything else therein, and the Brontë piano was a cabinet upright. That it not to say that the music sounded wrong played on the square piano. Interestingly, one’s ear attunes, and by that stage in the concert I had become accustomed to the sound. So much so, that had Daniel Grimwood turned to the grand piano in the corner of the room to play one of Field’s Nocturnes I’m sure I would have found it aurally shocking.
To complete the programme Daniel Grimwood included Variations on ‘Oh dear, what can the matter be?’ by Thomas Geary, another composer of the period who is little-known and died young. He is thought to be the first Irish composer who used traditional tunes as a basis for classical composition. In contrast, Philip Cogan, who Daniel Grimwood describes as the Irish CPE Bach and the most important Irish composer before Field, lived and worked into his eight decade and collaborated with Giordani on music for the stage. He was represented here by his solid Sonata in F minor. In complete contrast, Field’s Sonata No. 2 in C minor, written when the composer was nineteen, demonstrated him stretching the capabilities of the square piano to the limit, modulating for all he was worth and demanding a virtuosic performer. As an encore, we were calmed by Field’s famous Nocturne in A major.
Daniel Grimwood is certainly a virtuosic pianist. He is also full of patent enthusiasm for the music, and an excellent communicator both musically and in talking, in relaxed conversational style, with his audience.
These were two remarkable concerts, thoroughly enjoyable and so very informative too.