Yesterday started with one of my favourite sounds in the whole wide world. At approximately 9.17am around fifty voices sang five note rising and descending scales, in unison. The sound of the Big Choir warming up, their rusty morningness filtered through the stone walls of the Great Hall.
And there it is. Bam! Nostalgia smacking me around the chops, again. I must have been about 8 or 9 when I was deemed old enough to sit through a rehearsal without undue fidgeting or nose-picking, at which point I was sent, under the maternal wing of a willing soprano, to squint at a score and make enthusiastic noises. I remember singing Schubert masses, Mozart, Poulenc, usually with a two piano accompaniment, with people like George Malcolm, fierce with the tenors, or Richard Hickox, charming the dowager altos.
That was then. This is now. This week it’s Haydn’s Nelson Mass, and Ave Maris Stella by Cecilia MacDowell. Can’t wait to hear it performed, this Friday.
Much to get through before then, however.
I heard the first of yesterday’s three evening concerts through the stone wall filter: pianist Yehuda Inbar playing Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod. Sitting on the lawn on a sunlit English summer evening was like being in a Merchant/Ivory movie (with a luscious soundtrack).
The main concert for the evening was a recital from cellist Adrian Brendel and pianist (and Summer School artistic director) Joanna MacGregor, demonstrating that you don’t need many individuals on stage to hear many voices.
First up, some highly expressive sign language. Pointed looks between the performers. Raised eyebrows. A smile, a look of surprise. A general shuffling as they make sure that they are, indeed, about to embark on the same piece of music, rather than two different ones. Silence as Joanna MacGregor sits, her head in her lap, for a full ten seconds, shaking with helpless laughter. Then, out of the silence, a miraculous transformation as Beethoven’s Sonata in C major begins.
The cello has become something of a trope – romantic, soulful, your go-t0 instrument in plays and movies to characterise a grief-stricken lover or misunderstood loner. Adrian Brendel isn’t having any truck with that. Yes, he can sing out the introverted ecstacy of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, or the ache-y long lines of Shostakovich’s melodies, (before they — the melodies, not the performers — go off the rails). But he’s not afraid to tell it how it is. So Beethoven’s late cello sonata is bewildering and beautiful, gruff and grey. “More Beethoven than cello,” says my father, sotto voce, as the applause dies down. And then Schnittke’s Sonata No. 2, another piece written late in the composer’s life. Last, in fact, according to Brendel. A piece which breaks all the rules by being nothing like anything except itself. Notes hung out to dry, waiting for another note to join them, or finishing a conversation that started two movements back… What made this, for me, was not just the fascinating range of timbres from both players, but the sense of space: plenty of silence, but not empty silence. Silence with great arcs reaching across the gap. Sculpture in sound.
In the 10pm slot, the Skampa Quartet playing Schubert’s Quartettsatz and, with pianist Hamish Milne, Cesar Franck’s nutty Piano Quintet in F minor. I’ve heard the Skampas before, on a tour for Musica Viva. They’re good. Really good: four intense, gripping sounds, not particularly blended, and all the better for that. Four more individual voices. And as they grappled with the Franck — old Cesar does lay it on a bit thick sometimes — Hamish Milne sat like the calm centre of the storm, barely raising a sweat, creating the most gorgeous sounds from the Steinway.
A good day.