Martinů Variations on a Slovak theme
Chopin Sonata in G minor
Schumann Stücke im Volkston
The Baillie/Lisney Duo combines the talents of two of Britain’s finest artists. They have established a thriving international career together, achieving special notice for their recent Beethoven concerts and recordings.
In Lisney, Baillie has found a soul mate. Time and again, the give and take between them spoke volumes about their music-making: generous; intelligent; always listening.” Independent
The Belfast Music Society used to present an annual series of chamber music concerts throughout the season. Now it telescopes nearly all of them all into one weekend festival. With the help of the BBC, the festival brings together a top class group of musicians under one theme – this year, Folk Inspirations.
Alexander Baillie (cello) and James Lisney (piano) gave the opening recital on Friday 19th February in the Great Hall at Queen’s. Martinu’s Variations on a Slovak Theme provided an arresting introduction. His strikingly unique harmonic progressions were punctuated by alternately lyrical and more rhythmical passages, a fine vehicle for Baillie and Lisney to display their worth.
Baillie produces a light but carrying tone, rich in the emotional propensities associated with this most romantic of instruments. In Chopin’s Sonata for cello, a perfect balance was struck with the piano, due to the gloriously controlled accompaniment of Lisney. How could one be surprised by the intimate musical interaction from such an established partnership as this?
If the Chopin work explored both familiar tracks and less trodden byways of the anniversary composer’s late style in a polished performance, then E.J.Moeran’s cello sonata also caught the attention through its unfamiliarity but darker hues. More a sonata in name rather than form, its subtle Irish overtones were tempered by an English romanticism fully portrayed by this dynamic duo.
Schumann provided perhaps the least challenging music of the evening but none the less enjoyable for that. A stimulating start to the BMS weekend of concerts.
Review by Graeme Stewart
As the Belfast Music Society’s 2010 International Festival of Chamber Music kicks off, an ensemble of musicians grace the stage in the beautiful and grand surroundings of Queen’s University’s Great Hall. Beneath the gaze of many of the university’s most distinguished alumni hanging on the walls, including Seamus Heaney, internationally renowned cellist Alexander Bailie joined by pianist James Lisney get the weekend off to a start with a programme of folk influenced music from Martinu, Chopin, Moeran and Robert Schumann.
The festival’s theme, folk inspirations, looks to explore the link between folk melodies and the classical world. Famously composers such as Bela Bartok and Ralph Vaughan Williams were heavily inspired by the music of their respective homelands, and used them to great effect; for Bartok it was his String Quartets and Concerto for Orchestra which perhaps display this most vividly, for Vaughan Williams it was perhaps held more on his sleeve as he unashamedly wrote works such as the English Folksong Suite, Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and of course Greensleeves.
But back to Friday evening’s programme, Bailie and Lisney begin with a performance of Martinu’s Variations on a Slovak Theme. Bohuslav Martinu is one of the most famous Czech composers, and in modern times is famous mainly for his chamber music output, writing many sonatas for instruments including flute, violin, cello, clarinet and trumpet. Alongside these, however, he had an enormous penchant for the dramatic and throughout his life wrote a staggering 15 operas, and 14 ballets, an achievement by any standard. His Variations on a Slovak Theme were written in 1959, his final year, and display a fondness for the instrument both through the technical, inventive and colorful writing as well as the fact it was one of a number of works he wrote for the cello (others include three sonatas, two concertos and other works for cello and piano). The music is distinctively eastern European, and relies heavily on the use of folk-like articulations within the composition. Martinu uses the theme effectively, utilizing the unorthodox harmonies and rhythmic jousting to full advantage, particularly in the thrilling scherzo and finale allegro movements.
Bailie certainly conjours up a feast of sounds from the cello, mirrored by a superb performance from James Lisney whose talents at the piano are as much part of the jousting as the cello. Both bring life to a piece rich with homage to folk song, and at the same time allow for the more polished characteristics of classicism to shine through.
Their second piece, Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G minor, is almost a polarized view of the ensemble through the eyes of a composer synonymous with clarity and grace. Frederik Chopin is arguably the greatest composer of the instrument, the piano that is, the cello he had a little more trouble with. The piece follows a fairly standard structure for a sonata, both instruments passing themes, melodies and phrases while at the same time allowing for some beautiful lyrical and harmonically interesting passages. There are, however, no definitive moments in the piece which hang in the air to astound, rather it is an essay on Chopin’s ability as a composer to write for the ensemble. Taking that into account, though, it must be said that the slow Largo movement is certainly a highlight of the work, and balances the cello’s deep and rich lower registers, with its sweet and sonorous upper range. Bailie’s interpretation of the music is suitably restrained, I think too much passion is perhaps not befitting of Chopin, whose music relies on just that, the music to provide the emotional and uplifting moments. Both players partnership on stage is seamless and certainly both show an awareness of the dialogue between their instruments.
After the interval we were treated to a rare performance of Moeran’s Cello Sonata. A composer, perhaps not heard of as much as others, Ernest Moeran’s music is deeply influenced by the music of both his maternal and paternal countries, namely England and Ireland, although the latter seems to have permeated more. This is also perhaps the reason why much of his music is lost in translation as his own distinctive and personal style is melded together by the folk influence resulting in music which, in its day, was regarded as non individualistic. All things considered, however, the Cello Sonata is a work which quintessentially sums up Moeran’s style, and shows a keen ear for the instrument (not surprising considering he was married to a cellist!). The work is crafted in a rather unorthodox style to that of a normal sonata; the movements have a fantasia feel to them, taking the music into different directions and perhaps not developing themes or melodies in the traditional way. Harmonically there is much chromaticism tinged with a romanticism reminiscent of impressionist music- Debussy and Ravel can certainly be heard in the piano’s part, but the cello has its own flavours, exploiting much of instrument’s character including pizzicato and double stopping techniques, providing a rich casket of colours to an already ‘exotic’-sounding piece. Both Bailie and Lisney enjoy this work, both players having their own voices in a work which has been described as “serious and clouded” due to the polarization of both instrument’s roles within the work. They have to work as individuals while at the same time find common musical ground in order for the piece to become a complete performance.
Robert Schumann’s 5 Stücke im Volkston (Five Pieces in a Folk Style) is one of those works that makes you smile. Full of inventive and whimsical musical sarcasm, the work is more of an essay on social parody than a serious contemplation of folk music. You can almost see Schumann sitting at the piano with a wry smile on his face as he pokes fun at musical conventions (courtly dances etc.) through coupling them with a folky style. The music is farcical, fun and at times lyrically archaic, but above all it is an excellent chamber work, with both cello and piano entering into little musical conversations and dialogues. T
To finish Bailie and Lisney perform another work by Moeran, his Prelude for Cello and Piano, the work Bailie claims he used to woo his then wife to be. The piece is certainly one for the heart strings, and has a meditative style evoking Irish landscapes. A beautiful tribute to his paternal homeland, and a fitting end to a fantastic evening of music from two outstanding players