There is a special ambience at Tempo Rubato on a Sunday afternoon, where sunshine, a cosy bar and community support for classical and contemporary musicians ensure a regular and supportive “full house” in a most friendly and intimate environment. Inside the brick walls, the Stewart & Sons grand piano takes pride of place on a small stage area, where hard surfaces can offer limited resonance and broadened low notes at times, occasionally adding a density to tonal lines. But today’s event offered three wonderful piano quartets, including a world premier, which attracted an excited and near capacity audience.
Frank Bridge’s Phantasy for Piano Quartet commences with a dramatic and tense opening chord before a rich tapestry of colour and lyricism leads to diminishing dynamics and softening blended string textures. Romantic rippling solo piano and very beautiful solo violin lines set a Mendelssohn mood, romantic moods, stormy and pastorale imagery and dense orchestral references. These contrasting moods, tempi, surging harmonies and sudden modulations were passionately expressed in emotive solo themes and balanced ensemble, presenting the three movements as a balanced and unified work.
Calvin Bowman introduced his new composition before exchanging seats with pianist Timothy Young to play his own Variations on “Wat zalmen op den Avond doen” (What should we do in the evening), a piece written for recorder by one of the best known musicians of the Dutch Golden Age, Jacob van Eyck. We first heard the gentle theme played on solo violin, its folk-dance melody played sympathetically and with a final phrase played by Wilma Smith with an exquisite and rare softness. Nostalgic, more rustic settings followed, with strong cello melodies reaching out through syncopated percussive high imitative bell sounds on the piano, the higher notes on the extended keyboard of the Stewart piano so apt for percussive effects. “Traditional” styled Variations explored rhythmic flow and sparkly ornamented melodies from the violin, thoughtful paired viola and cello melodic settings, and a sweet and sunny waltz episode with warm string pizzicato dance beats. Bowman’s compositions vividly explore colour, and today we were pleasantly surprised with a jump into a contemporary harmonic setting where solo stringed instruments were given quirky soundbites and then a mixture of innovative playing techniques adding fresh colours to a piano waltz variation. Jaunty rhythms led to a grand chorale like setting, with a return of Bowman’s favourite percussive high bell-sounds, which dissolved, slowed and with low strings faded in time. Intelligently and colourfully designed, there was much variety, interest and creativity in this new, most appealing work.
Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 47, premiered in 1844 with Clara Schumann at the piano, and is recognised as one of the best of the genre. Dark opening chords led to darker shadowy contemplative themes and an inspiring, familiar hymn-like phrase before a briskly flowing piano added rousing and buoyant rhythmic drive.
The second movement Scherzo scurried delightfully with flamboyant staccato string playing and expressive thematic attention. Alexandra Partridge held our hearts with her deeply mellow, Romantic playing of the solo cello theme that opens the third movement Andante Cantabile, and individual instruments seized many brief solo moments for sensitive and clear alternating entries. Most sensuous and affective was the balanced partnership of cello and viola in a sensuous slow romantic waltz in this famous third movement. The final Vivace added much joy and optimism, at times virtuosic bravado, with staccato repeated notes played with precision and flair. With many themes referenced by each instrument in turn, these performers excelled most admirably in pronouncing each solo entry against slightly softened ensemble accompaniment, quickly weaving back into the ensemble as other solo melodies entered, in a beautifully balanced and detailed performance.
Photo credit: Polyphonic Pictures
Julie McErlain reviewed “Wilma and Friends: Invention”, with Wilma Smith (violin), Tom Higham (viola), Alexandra Partridge (cello), Timothy Young (piano), and Calvin Bowman (piano), performing at Tempo Rubato on October 8, 2023.