BAXI Early Music Season at St Mary’s Church begins (Part 1)

For the opening concert of the BAXI Early Music Season at St Mary’s Warwick on 10 October, we were delighted to have Ex Cathedra back in this glorious setting, where forces large and small have over the years given so many outstanding concerts – the group were joined for this concert by Silvana Scarinci on lute and Alex Mason on organ.

Monteverdi: In Search of 1610, is one of many concerts celebrating the 450th anniversary of the birth of the great Italian composer, Claudio Monteverdi. A contemporary of Shakespeare, he is  almost as important to music as the Bard was to theatre. Monteverdi’s most famous work, the Vespers of 1610, has recently been performed in Leamington and Warwick and at the BBC Proms with two performances are scheduled this Autumn in Birmingham Town Hall, among many other venues in the country. The programme that Jeffrey Skidmore devised for this concert stems from the publication in 1610 of a collection of sacred music by Monteverdi – it is the often revolutionary music leading up to it which principally inspires the “madrigals made spiritual”.

1066, 1215, 1492, 1588, 1660, 1685, 1914, 1917, 1966… Some years have a special, indelible significance in our memories. 1610 is a date ingrained in the soul of early musicians. In that year Claudio Monteverdi’s startling collection of sacred music was published in Venice. It is seen to be his first major publication in this genre, and includes a Mass, five Psalms, a Hymn, two settings of the Magnificat, an instrumental ‘prayer’, and several solo, vocal concertos for one, two and three voices. A dazzling array of techniques are displayed and, once discovered, this music captivates performers, musicologists and listeners. Where did this extraordinary music come from? Is it a revolutionary work? This programme aims to explore how Monteverdi so brilliantly arrived at his explosive fusion of styles.

Of course, in music there are no revolutions, and no ‘big bangs’. All great composers are part of a heritage which is, to a greater or lesser extent, clearly identifiable and acknowledged. Although Monteverdi’s music has been described as revolutionary, in fact, he was one of several composers looking for new ways, in conventional forms, to ‘move the passions’. Opera and the madrigal were the most suitable musical structures for exploring progressive ideas and Monteverdi made unique contributions in both fields. Five books of madrigals were published in Venice before 1610, with the controversial books Four and Five appearing just after the turn of the century in 1603 and 1605. The operas L’Orfeo and L’Arianna appeared in 1607 and 1608. How were these new, experimental ideas transferred to the ultra-conservative world of church music?

The Ten themes of Gombert

Monteverdi seems to have been very astute here. The Missa In illo tempore, the first music in the 1610 publication, uses ‘cantus firmus’ and ‘paraphrase’ techniques that go back to the earliest times. Monteverdi took ten melodic themes from a motet by Nicolas Gombert, one of the most influential composers of the first part of the 16th century. The themes are explored in a seemingly

‘old style’ but with remarkable invention and contrapuntal delight, occasionally creating curiously modern harmonies and effects. The other liturgical pieces in the 1610 collection make extensive and clearly audible use of plainchant, one of the oldest forms of sacred melody. So at one level the pieces were clearly part of the conservative sacred tradition.

The more ‘avant garde’ elements were drawn to some extent from opera but mainly from the madrigal. Monteverdi had seen how effectively the contemporary madrigal style could be transformed into a sublime sacred work through the ‘contrafacta’ created by his contemporary and friend, Aquilino Coppini, who was a Milanese priest and Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Padua. Coppini must have been very familiar with the emotionally charged and sensuous world of passion and pain found in Monteverdi’s madrigals. He wrote that ‘there is in them a wonderful power
to move the passions exceedingly’. He wanted to harness the depth of this expression for the church and his skillful ‘translations’ [contrafacta] of the secular Italian originals into sacred Latin are impressive. Vowel sounds and colours, syntax, accentuation – all carefully match the originals and fit Monteverdi’s music perfectly. Coppini wrote to a friend in 1609 that, clothed with spiritual words, the madrigals might be ‘equally commendable to God and to his saints in churches and private houses.’ Three collections of madrigals ‘made spiritual’ were published in Milan in 1607, 1608 and 1609. They proved to be very popular and must surely have given Monteverdi the confidence to apply these techniques to the extraordinary ‘original’ liturgical music found in the famous 1610 collection.

This is of great interest to musicologists, academics, and historians, and it also provides the basis for what was a most interesting programme. How can this amazing decade of music be presented in a meaningful way that is enjoyable, works as a programme, and also reveals Monteverdi’s creative process and exposes more of his genius? Each half of the concert began with performances of the madrigals and we then heard the sacred versions of the same pieces. These ‘contrafacta’ replaced the liturgical propers between the movements of the Mass and as the group moved, Alex Mason played organ improvisations on the ten Gombert themes. The concert ended with a performance of the second, less frequently performed six-part Magnificat – a rare treat indeed for our Warwick audience!

Such an interesting and unique programme will certainly inspire further listening for some; Presto Classical recommended the following:

Monteverdi’s vocal music has been widely recorded by many outstanding ensembles. A number of groups have undertaken series of recordings featuring his madrigals, including Concerto Italiano under Rinaldo Alessandrini (Aracan A425), and Les Arts Florissants with Paul Agnew – the latter’s volume of early madrigals (written during Monteverdi’s time in Cremona) winning a Gramophone Award in 2016 (Les Arts Florissants Editions AF005). The 1610 Vespers are also well represented on disc. BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library first choice is The King’s Consort’s recording for Hyperion (CDA67531/2)- which also includes the Missa ‘In illo tempore’ heard in tonight’s programme. Bach Collegium Japan’s recording on BIS (BISCD1071/1072) of the Vespers, under Masaaki Suzuki, also includes the Missa ‘In illo tempore’ and the Magnificat a 6 heard this evening.

Ex Cathedra have made a huge number of outstanding recordings, including a number of recommended and award-winning performances, of a wide-ranging repertoire. Their series of recordings of Baroque vocal music from around the world has been universally well received, and discs of Gabrieli, Rameau, Lassus, and Bach are similarly impressive. More recently, their 2014 recording for Hyperion (CDA68035) with Carolyn Sampson of arias written for Marie Fel – A French Baroque Diva – received a Gramophone Award. Last year they released a disc featuring the music of Alec Roth (Hyperion CDA68144), described by Gramophone as ‘immensely attractive’.

Look out for Part 2 of this blog post, coming up shortly…



Investec International String Quartet Series: the Winter So Far (Part 2)

The second of this season’s Investec International String Quartet Concerts was the most welcome return of the Takács Quartet to the Royal Pump Rooms on Thursday 16 November, just three years after their first visit. On this trip to Europe, the Quartet gives six concerts in England including two at the Wigmore Hall, before going to Sweden and Denmark.

The Takács Quartet, now entering its forty-third season, is renowned for the vitality of its interpretations. The New York Times recently lauded the ensemble for “revealing the familiar as  unfamiliar, making the most traditional of works feel radical once more”, and the Financial Times described a recent concert at the Wigmore Hall: “Even in the most fiendish repertoire these players show no fear, injecting the music with a heady sense of freedom. At the same time, though, there is an uncompromising attention to detail: neither a note nor a bow-hair is out of place.”

Based in Boulder at the University of Colorado, the Takács Quartet performs eighty concerts a year worldwide. Our concert was almost entirely sold out before the doors even opened and the Royal Pumps were full to bursting with a most eager and appreciative audience!

The programme for this concert is all tied together by Vienna where both the Mozart and Beethoven quartets were written, premièred and published. Mozart had moved to the imperial capital from Salzburg and Beethoven from Bonn; Brahms moved there too from Hamburg and his first two string quartets, Opus 51, were premiered in Vienna in 1873. However his last and third quartet, Opus 67, was published and premièred in Berlin in 1876, having been written quite quickly (for him) that year, unlike his two Opus 51 quartets which had taken him eight years to complete, as he suffered, as with his symphonies, from the long shadow of Beethoven.

Mozart Quartet in D K575

Mozart’s Quartet K575 is the first of the three Prussian quartets, which resulted from a visit to Potsdam and Berlin in 1789. The hope was that the cello-playing Kaiser would commission a range of works from him and indeed offer further performance opportunities. In his final works for string quartet – the Clarinet Quintet dates from 1789 too – the elaborately wrought four part style that he had developed had up to a point to be abandoned and there was a need to emphasise the cello, most easily achieved in the slow movements. In the first movement a brief phrase at the end of the opening theme is taken up again after the appearance of the second theme and is subjected to considerable attention in the development section. The main melody of the slow movement is a variant of Mozart’s famous song Das Veilchen. After the trio, the finale (another Allegretto) has a serene song for the cello accompanied by the viola. The whole movement is characterized by placidity and warmth of feeling.

Beethoven Quartet in B flat Op 18 No 6

Beethoven’s Opus 18 set of quartets were written between 1798 and 1800; dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, the set was published in 1801. In each of the Opus 18 quartets, the first movements are not extensive and tend to be swift, bland even and symmetrical, but one can enjoy in No 6, the grace of the light-footed first subject played by the first violin, followed by a second subject that has a lightness of heart. The scherzo is energized by its effective syncopations. The quartets in the set build up to their finales and Opus 18 No 6 is the most visionary, where a slow, strange-sounding chromatic labyrinth entitled La Malinconia alternates with a swift limpid little dance evocative of the Viennese ballrooms. Beethoven asks for this movement to be played with the greatest delicacy. Edward Dusinberre points out in his book Beethoven for a Later Age, “the recurrences of the slow introductory music of the first movement of Opus 130 are an expansion of an idea already presented many years previously in the last movement of his Quartet Opus 18 No 6, where the mysterious Malincolia introduction refuses to be pushed away by a more cheerful last movement”. The Opus 18 No 6 Quartet has been described as “the most mature and individual of the set” and Beethoven then paused for half a dozen years before returning to the genre when he started the Razumovsky set and moved into his middle period.

Brahms Quartet in B flat Op 67

Brahms’s Opus 67 quartet is the most joyful of his three quartets and it has the nickname of The Hunt. The opening spirited melody sounds like a hunting fanfare and the first movement continues
with continually contrasting rhythms. There follows a graceful song over syncopated chords and then in the scherzo-like third movement, the viola becomes the dominant performer, with the other instruments muted. Brahms turned in the final movement once more to the variation form. The cantabile theme, a simple melody that sounds like a folk tune undergoes eight ingenious
transformations that represent a high point in Brahms’s use of the form. In the last two passages he used the vigorous leaping theme of the first movement contrapuntally thus uniting the
four movements in one intellectual whole.     Richard Phillips, November 2017

If you are interested in further listening, Presto Classical have made the following recommendations:

Recordings of Mozart’s String Quartet in D K575 by the Schumann Quartet (ARS Produktion ARS38156) and the Alban Berg Quartett (Teldec 4509954952) have been well-received. The Amadeus Quartet “play with great polish and fluency” (Penguin Guide) in their complete Mozart recordings for Deutsche Grammophon (4778680). The Takács Quartet’s own outstanding recordings of Beethoven’s String Quartets are available either as separate volumes of Early, Middle and Late Quartets, or in a newly-remastered complete set (Decca 4831317). Beethoven recordings by the Belcea Quartet on Alpha (ALPHA262) and Quartetto Italiano on Decca (4540622)are also generally recommended. The Takács Quartet have also recorded Brahms’s Quartet in B flat Op 67 – twice! Their later recording for Hyperion (CDA67552), released in 2008, was a Gramophone Awards Finalist in the Chamber category in 2009 and well received at the time of release; “their approach is alert, texturally clear and passionate…these are admirable performances which I recommend to any prospective buyer” (BBC Music Magazine). Recordings of Brahms’s quartets by the Artemis (Erato 2564612663), Belcea (Alpha ALPHA248) and Amadeus Quartets (DG 4743582) are also worth exploring.

The Takács Quartet have built up an extensive discography over the last forty-plus years, spanning a wide range of repertoire from Haydn to Shostakovich and beyond. Their latest release on Hyperion (CDA68142) with viola player Lawrence Power is “an entrancing disc” (Gramophone) featuring Dvořák’s Quartet Op 105 and String Quintet Op 97. If you’ve enjoyed this evening’s programme, you might also like to explore the Takács Quartet’s other recordings of Brahms chamber music – the String Quartet No. 2 and Piano Quintet (Hyperion CDA67551) and two String Quintets have all been recorded (Hyperion CDA67900) – or their complete recordings of Beethoven’s String Quartets.

The third concert in the Investec International Quartet Series is on Thursday 30 November at 7.30pm in the Royal Pump Rooms, Leamington – click here for tickets. Alternatively call 01926 334418 to book or visit the Box Office, Leamington Visitor Information Centre, Royal Pump Rooms.

Investec International String Quartet Series: the Winter So Far (Part 1)

Navarra String Quartet

As we speed through November, we have already enjoyed the first  two concerts in the Investec International String Quartet Series. The season opened on 6 October with an explosive entrance by the dynamic and poetic Navarra Quartet which last played here in 2010. This Anglo-Dutch quartet came direct from the Hatfield House Music Festival and stayed here for three days, giving workshops in schools in Hatton, Hampton Lucy, Leamington and Warwick.

The Navarra Quartet made its debut in Warwickshire when still at the RNCM in Manchester, performing in 2003 in Over Whitacre as part of the Concerts in Warwickshire Churches series and this was the Quartet’s fourth concert for Leamington Music.

For this concert, the quartet brought us the following programme:

Haydn Quartet in E flat Op 9 No 2

The Opus 9 set of six quartets was the first of nine sets of six that Haydn put together, either for publishers or commissioners. The quartets date from the late 1760s and were first published in Amsterdam in 1771. There had been compositions for violins, viola and cello even before Haydn started to write divertimenti a Quattro in the 1750s. In later life he said he wanted his series of quartets to start with Opus 9. Opus 17 followed in 1771 and Opus 20 in 1772. (All six Opus 20 quartets have been programmed by Leamington Music, but the first from Opus 17, No 2, will be given by the London Haydn Quartet in March.)

The Opus 9 set has some brilliant writing for the first violin and this was almost certainly due to the presence of the young leader of the Esterhazy Orchestra, Luigi Tomasini. (Haydn would have played second violin to him in quartets.) The leader in No 2 soon goes into the stratosphere, only for the motion to be suspended, moving towards a haunting pianissimo. The movement ends however with what has been described as “a flurry of skittering triplets”. The minuet that follows has a Mozartian feel to it, suave and with some interesting inner chromatic lines. The Adagio has a rhapsodic opening seemingly improvised but with a change to triple metre, the leader is gifted a sorrowful song, which would be at home in the opera house. The finale has a catchy, syncopated theme which returns at the start of the development and we can enjoy Haydn’s wit, which is a major factor in setting him apart from all other composers of quartets. It all leads to a bout of gleeful repartee as the quartet comes to a conclusion.

Shostakovich Quartet No 5 in B flat Op 92

Shostakovich’s Quartet No 5 dates from the Autumn of 1952. It was premiered in Leningrad in November 1953 by the Beethoven Quartet, to which it is dedicated. The Quartet is played without a
break and it grows from a five note motif C-D-Eflat-B-Csharp, which contains the composer’s initials DSCH. He was to use the same device in his Quartet No 8 and Symphony No 10. The fifth Quartet is one of Shostakovich’s most rigorous and unyielding works. The opening adagio is of symphonic proportions completely fulfilled in its driving energy and dense writing. It moves through a mysterious passage using harmonics into the central andante, a haunted vista of slow moving, tenuous simplicity and concerted writing. In the middle, in the exquisite second section, there is one of the loveliest moments in all his works to look forward to. The finale starts with a slow waltz which turns into a massive climax and themes from all three movements are used before subsiding to a quiet but still tenuous close. The final bar of Shostakovich’s third, fourth and fifth quartets are all marked morendo.

Schubert Quartet in G D887

When you have finished listening to Schubert’s Quartet in G, which takes over three quarters of an hour to play, will you believe that he wrote it down in just ten days in late June 1826? It is a work of considerable dimensions, with the first movement in particular making its mark. The poignant mood foreshadows the first movement of the String Quintet in C written only months before Schubert died. The music is questioning, rhythmically nervous and yet there is serene beauty in the sighing motifs. Except for two stormy interludes, the slow movement is dominated by a melody of heavenly calm and yet there is an undercurrent of menace. In the urgent scherzo, nervous repeated notes predominate, only to contrast with the song-like trio, a Ländler-like tune that has something of a barcarolle about it. If the first movement is a harbinger of the Quintet in C, the last movement looks back to the Death and the Maiden Quartet. Both assume the form of a tarantella, the whirling southern Italian dance in 6/8 time. The dance eventually dies down and the work ends, after references to the Andante, with a simple recitative-like cadence. Schubert never heard a public performance of this great work. He played viola when it was played privately in the home of a friend and just the first movement was included in the only all-Schubert programme to be given in his lifetime in March 1828. The first public performance was given in 1850 by the Hellmesberger Quartet and publication, as Opus 161, by the house of Diabelli in Vienna, followed in 1851.

When Haydn was born, Bach and Handel were aged 47 with major works – and in Handel’s case many operas – under their belts, but baroque music had another thirty years to run. Haydn was in his late 30’s by the time he had satisfactorily modelled the string quartet. Shostakovich lived to nearly seventy and had time to compose his fifteen quartets and symphonies. Schubert was one of a number of composers who died far too young, but if he had had his three score years and ten, how would we have dealt with 1200 songs, 18 symphonies, perhaps 15 quartets, other chamber works, plus more solo piano and piano trios? He might even have had some success in the opera house.     Richard Phillips, October 2017

You may be interested in some further listening prompted by this wonderful programme and Presto Classical recommended the following recordings:

The Haydn has been recorded by the London Haydn Quartet on Hyperion (CDA67611) and the Kodály Quartet on Naxos (8550787) – both of these superb ensembles will appear later in our Winter Season too! The Kodály on Thursday 30 November (tickets available online here) and the London Haydn on Friday 9 March (click here to book).

The Shostakovich comes as part of the much-celebrated complete set by the Brodsky Quartet on Teldec (2564608672), the quartet which gave such a memorable concert in our last Winter Season. The Atrium Quartet re-opens the season in the New Year on Friday 26 January with No 12 (click here for tickets) and has committed No 5 to disc on the Zigzag label (ZZT080702).

The Schubert has also been much recorded over the years by quartets including the Kodály Quartet (Naxos 8557125) and The Lindsays (ASV CDDCA661). Another ensemble appearing recently in Leamington, The Doric Quartet’s Schubert series has been highly praised, and their recording of this quartet on Chandos (CHAN10931), which wasrecently shortlisted for a Gramophone Award, is an “incisive, imaginative account” (The Sunday Times).

The Navarra Quartet have appeared on a number of discs, including a recent disc of songs by Pavel Haas on Resonus Classics (RES10183), which received a 5-star review from BBC Music Magazine: “from joy to despair, every  emotion is here in subtle colours”. Also worth exploring is their recording of quartets by Peteris Vasks on Challenge Classics (CC72365) and Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross (Altara ALT1040-D), both of which are available to download only.


Look out for Part 2 of this blog post, coming up shortly…



Welcome to our new world!

We are delighted to be able to launch our new-look website alongside the Winter Season 2017/18! We’re sure you will enjoy the fresh pages and improved ‘usability’ which will bring you new and up-to-date information throughout the year.

Here in the blog, we will keep you abreast of the goings-on at Leamington Music so we can provide you with more insight into our events and concert programmes; you’ll be able to see the exciting work we have planned over the coming months with the Education Programme and lots of other news too – do keep checking in to see what new gems we’ll have ready for you. Please join our mailing list by adding your email address to the box over on the right to receive our regular email newsletter as well, and you can also keep in touch with us via the Contact us page – we are always pleased to hear from you!

We hope you enjoy the new site and, of course, the Winter Season’s concerts too – we look forward seeing you on Friday night in the Royal Pump Rooms for our first evening of beautiful music which begins at 6.30pm in the Conservatory with the youngsters of Warwickshire County Guitar Ensemble and the Navarra String Quartet at 7.30pm to get our Winter Season 2017/18 truly underway in style.

5 October 2017