Friday, October 28, 2011

Van Swieten Society

On my site I usually only pay attention to discs with music before the 19th century. On rare occasions I have reviewed recordings with 19th-century repertoire. My reviews of live events are also restricted to pre-romantic repertoire. But now and then I do attend concerts with romantic music, on one condition: it has to be performed on period instruments. One ensemble whose concerts I always try to attend is the Van Swieten Society. It once started as Musica Classica, and was founded by Bart van Oort, player of the fortepiano and a former pupil of Malcolm Bilson. In the early days it played mostly music from the classical period. Over the years it has made more and more excursions into later repertoire.

One of the features of the Van Swieten Society is its preference for little-known repertoire and composers who are largely neglected by mainstream performers. Recently I attended a concert which bears witness to that. It was entitled "Violoncello all'Inglese", and its thread was music written or performed in England in which the cello plays an important role. Two pieces were in particular interesting in regard to the role of the cello. In the first part we heard Three Russian Airs, op. 72 by Ferdinand Ries. He was not an English composer and this piece was the result of his stay in Russia. But during his time in London, from 1813 to 1824, it was very popular and frequently performed. The other piece was from the pen of Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901), the most brilliant cellist of his time, who lived in England until shortly before his death. His Serenade in D for two cellos and pianoforte was probably written in the 1870's and must be one of the latest compositions the Van Swieten Society has ever played. Job ter Haar gave brilliant performances of both pieces, with Jan Insinger on the second cello in Piatti. The works by Ries and Piatti are typical showpieces which give the interpreter the opportunity to display his skills. Piatti's piece, by the way, reminded me once again why I dislike music of the second half of the 19th century.

The other pieces on the programme were hardly less curious. The probably least unknown composer - apart from Ries - was George Onslow, a composer of British birth from the early 19th century who spent a large part of his life in France, and therefore claimed by the French as one of them. There is a remarkable interest in his music lately, as a list of recordings shows. In particular his string quintets enjoy growing popularity. One of them, the Quintet in c minor, op. 38, has the nickname 'The Bullet', and graphically describes how Onslow was hit by a bullet during a hunting party. Bart van Oort likes to explain the music to the audience. That is nice, but I wonder whether in this case he shouldn't have given the audience the opportunity to find out for themselves how and when exactly Onslow expressed the moment he was hit and the state of his health afterwards. Now it was explained before the performance, and that took away some of the effects this piece contains. Just assume Haydn would have explained to his audience that they would hear a big bang in his 'Surprise' symphony ...

The fortepiano played a major role in the two remaining works. The concert started with the Quintet in A flat for pianoforte and strings by John Field. A remarkable piece of a lyrical character in just one movement, 'andante con espressione'. And an expressive performance it received. It turned out to be a very fine composition, and would be a great addition to the repertoire of chamber music ensembles of this scoring. The concert ended with a piece by William Sterndale Bennet, who was a major force in the British music scene in the first half of the 19th century. He travelled to Germany where he became friends with Mendelssohn and Schumann. Little of his oeuvre has been recorded; the main recordings regard his five piano concertos. The Sextet in f sharp minor op. 8 is written for pianoforte, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. The latter instrument can be replaced by a second cello, and that was the case in this concert. As Sterndale Bennet was a pianist by profession, and a virtuoso to boot, it comes as no surprise that the keyboard has the main part. But the strings are given fine music too. It received an engaging performance, starting with an 'allegro moderato ma con passione' which was played with passion indeed, followed by a playful scherzo. A lyrical 'andante grazioso' and an 'allegro assai ed energico' brought this work to a close. It was a very pleasant acquaintance with the oeuvre of Sterndale Bennet, and I hope this is not the last time his music is performed by the Van Swieten Society.

Programmes like this give this ensemble its unique place in the music scene. It seems that they hardly ever perform outside the Netherlands, which is quite surprising. Because of their technical and interpretational skills and their creative programming they fully deserve to be part of the international circuit.