Alan Cooper Reviews: The Primrose Piano Quartet



Thursday, 03 November 2016

After four spectacular Lunchbreak concerts given in association with BBC Radio 3 for later broadcast, there was no falling away from the spirit of first rank performance thanks on this occasion to a visit from the superb Primrose Piano Quartet. They had brought with them veteran English composer Anthony Payne whose recently composed Piano Quartet was to have its Scottish Première at today’s concert in a joint promotion with the soundfestival.

Before the concert, pianist John Thwaites and composer Anthony Payne entertained us with a fascinating conversation during which Payne told us about how his whole life had been changed as a small boy as a result of hearing the opening moments of the First Symphony of Brahms in a radio broadcast. He went on to explain his wide experience of listening to all kinds of classical music so that when he was accepted to study music at University without having any official musical qualifications he found that he knew vastly more pieces than his fellow students who had studied perhaps only a dozen or fewer pieces in depth. Payne had always wanted to be a composer and began writing music while still just a boy. It took him some time to find his own personal voice when two contrasting styles of music tugged at his creative instincts – the late romantic traditions of English composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams for both of whom he had a great admiration and on the other side the continental avant-garde who embraced atonal styles of composition.
Many of the audience may have been more familiar with the name Anthony Payne as the man who completed a performing version of Elgar’s Third Symphony. It took him many years and he spoke in depth about that experience during his talk with John Thwaites.

The concert itself began with a performance of just one movement of the Piano Quartet (2007) by Peter Maxwell Davies whose music opened this year’s soundfestival two weeks ago in the Elphinstone Hall. This movement is entitled “Lullaby from Faroe”. It had a melodic format though not one that you would normally associate with a conventional lullaby, in this country at least. The music was nevertheless quiet and gentle with a strangely distant quality. It was rather short but beautifully played by the Primrose Piano Quartet.
They continued with the principal piece featured in this concert, Anthony Payne’s Piano Quartet. It opened with a powerful statement for piano and violin, the other stringed instruments coming in soon - first viola then cello. There was an immediate contrast heard between brief punchy piano chords and smooth legato string playing. Later on in the Quartet the piano and string textures came together more closely. It was a very busy piece with rhythm of prime importance. There was in there a hint of the ghost of Bartók both in the sense of energy and urgency and in the tightness of the musical argument. I found it a totally compelling piece.

The concert continued with two totally different works. The first was an arrangement for Piano Quartet by Jacques Cohen of Ravel’s rather unsettling orchestral work La Valse. At the top of his score Ravel has written the following words (in English translation from the original French):“Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter. One sees an immense hall peopled with a swirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of chandeliers bursts forth. Set in an imperial court about 1855.”

Ravel had originally conceived the work as ballet music but he had a great falling out with Diaghilev over the score. At one point a duel between the two was suggested but fortunately never took place.

The sense of the waltz came through mistily at first then more emphatically on the strings. The piano joined the rhythmic mêlée towards the end but before that it suggested a darker undercurrent. Was Ravel bidding farewell to a world of past opulence that had bee blown away by the First World War? Whatever is true, the Primrose Quartet gave a performance that swung magnificently with the atmosphere of the dance and with the strange undercurrents suggested by Ravel – another Scottish Première today.

The final piece was far more straightforward in its appeal. Here was Anthony Payne in his Elgar mode with One Miniature by E. Elgar arranged for Piano Quartet by Payne. The melody was the famous Salut d’ amour round which Payne had created a delicious aura bringing together piano and strings in perfect harmonic consonance.

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