The fourth recital in the current season of concerts in the Musica Viva series in the recently-refurbished Levinsky Hall on the University of Plymouth campus, offered a further opportunity to try out two very different musical genres – that of the conventional String Trio format, and, for the first time in the revamped venue, a substantial piece of purely electronic music.
The stage setup was of necessity going to be something of a compromise, where the electronic equipment had been set up upstage, with the Trio playing downstage. From the aural standpoint, this had no real consequence for the electronics, since the final sound-source – provided by a pair of large stereo speakers – was still situated right at the front. Furthermore, there were more than sufficient ways the performer could artificially add reverberation, and modify the venue’s overall acoustic to produce a vibrant and lifelike sound. The string trio, on the other hand, still had no way of physically improving or enhancing the still-somewhat-dry sound of their acoustic instruments.
The pre-concert talk, led as usual by Arts Institute Director of Music Bob Taub, proved most relevant, especially for those coming to this kind of event for the first time. It was also encouraging that there seemed fewer interruptions since late-comers tended to arrive only in dribs and drabs. Perhaps some of those who had attended previously had, on this occasion, been influenced, either by the choice of programme – or, more than likely, had simply taken themselves off elsewhere, for the University Choral Society’s Spring concert.
Dignity and gravitas
London-based Trio Kurtag – Juliette Roos (violin), Yume Fujise (viola), and Eliza Millett (cello) – opened the evening with two of Henry Purcell’s Three-part Fantasias, which they followed with a performance of Gideon Klein’s String Trio, composed in 1944 when the young Moravian/Jewish composer was interned in a Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt until his tragic demise at a mere twenty-five years of age. Despite the fact that the three young performers were of similar age to Klein when he wrote his Trio, they played with great dignity and gravitas, something you would usually only expect from players perhaps twice their age.
Up close and personal
The final work of the first half featured David Bessell’s ‘Micro Variations on an Emerging Theme’ (2023), subtitled, an ‘Electronic realisation for physical modelled instruments’ – commissioned by Musica Viva, The Arts Institute, and here performed by the composer. With the Trio Kurtag having temporarily vacated the stage, this provided an uninterrupted view of David and his three keyboards. But this wasn’t felt overly satisfying, even when viewed from the first few rows of the auditorium. While it was possible at this remove to see David’s fingers on each keyboard, what would have been so much more meaningful, and have made the whole experience more enjoyable, would either to have had a mobile cameraman filming everything up close and personal, so that the audience would now be able to relate what they could now see – in terms of hand position, finger movement, and use of buttons, and other control devices – to what they were actually hearing.
Sounds and textures
Alternatively, and for what actual visible impact the performance had on the night, it could just as easily have been filmed in advance, thus allowing the composer to draw attention to anything felt vital to the ongoing understanding of what was going on, either via some kind of Powerpoint presentation, or a few odd few words by way of a live vocal commentary. As it was, particularly for the uninitiated – in which body I would certainly include myself – taken at face value, it all tended to come across as a somewhat random amalgam of interesting sounds and textures.
After all, when the operas of Rossini, Verdi, Puccini or Wagner, were first performed in the vernacular, they had no sub- or surtitles available to help those members of the audience for whom the vernacular wasn’t their native tongue. But today, and especially in an opera like Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, where there is a significant amount of spoken dialogue – those fluent in French would be laughing at each and every on-stage joke, while any English monoglot present, wouldn’t have a clue about what’s going on. This was somewhat similar to my experience of hearing David Bessell’s piece of electronic music for the very first time.
But if the ubiquitous baseball cap is now to be regarded the de rigueur formal head-attire for composers of electronic music – as it has always been for most sportsmen and women – I can happily live without it, if only I could know more about what actually seems to be going on within earshot.
Highly-refined, well-polished, and stylistically-appropriate
The Kurtags returned after the interval for the last two works of the evening – Jean Françaix’s highly-entertaining String Trio, so full of tongue-in-cheek French humour, and George Enescu’s liltingly-evocative ‘Aubade’ – a stylised Romanian folk tune, with its sunny Mediterranean overtones. Once again the Trio gave highly-refined, well-polished, and stylistically-appropriate readings of both works.
There had, of course, been a necessary gravity in their first-half programme, and which was rightly apparent in the performance. However, if only the players might have responded somewhat more to the distinct upturn in mood during their second half, they might have engaged more with their audience. Just the mere smile, or visual interplay between them, could have brought the playing to life a tad more, and is, in my book, one of the fundamental tenets of chamber music – whether playing for love, or for money.
You can read my full review of Trio Kurtag and David Bessell at Seen and Heard International.
Philip R Buttall
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