I’ve never been a fan of salon music, which can be thought of as a classical version of muzak that existed long before muzak itself came into existence. But I had to alter my attitude somewhat when, as a student, I was roped into playing in a salon ensemble for Trinity Ball.
There was a fee involved, and I needed the money. But the experience taught me that something of much greater value. I discovered that, for me at least, music which was often actually irritating to listen to could be great fun to play.
Think of it as being a bit like the pleasure of garlic in food as opposed to the smell of garlic off someone’s breath. Or the spice asafoetida, which, uncooked, has an obnoxious smell (the German word for it, Teufelsdreck, translates as “devil’s dung”) but which you may well have unknowingly eaten with pleasure in Indian food.
The discrepancy between onstage and offstage experience was covered in an interview between the conductor André Previn and the writer and broadcaster Antony Hopkins. Previn recalled conducting Brahms’s First Symphony on a day when he had received “some private news of considerable anguish”.
As a result, he explained, “I went out on stage and poured all my feelings into the performance, I became totally immersed in the music, and at the end of it I thought I had given a really superb performance”.
After the concert his manager came backstage with a completely different response. He told Previn, “That was the most tasteless wallowing around I have ever heard”. The conductor was furious, but next morning when he listened to a tape of the performance he couldn’t disagree.
The issue is well covered by the first two of Richard Strauss’s Ten Golden Rules for the Album of a Young Conductor. The first is, “Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience,” and the second states, “You should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm.” Previn didn’t recount how his tasteless wallowing was received by the audience. My suspicion would be that it went down well. Many of the greatest works of the standard repertoire are robust enough to give an audience pleasure even when they’re being messed about by performers. And some of those works, I suspect, even have Siren-like characteristics which encourage players to indulge themselves in ways they would normally avoid.
What set me thinking about all of this was a performance of Schubert's String Quintet given by the Navarra Quartet with cellist Guy Johnston in Westport House at last weekend's Westport Chamber Music Festival. The greatness of the quintet is not in question nor is the satisfaction expressed by the audience.
But the performance itself was wayward in terms of instrumental balance, the intrusiveness of some of the rubato and the unpredictability of the intonation. The performers may have been having too good a time.
The Schubert would have sounded a lot better if the Navarras had demonstrated the kind of focus and discipline they found a day later in Shostakovich's Piano Quintet with Hugh Tinney. Here their earlier impetuosity was replaced by patience and discipline, the expressive focus was both fine and pliable, and Tinney was a tower of strength at the keyboard.
The Navarras’ other performance, of Beethoven’s late Quartet in A minor, fell somewhere between the Schubert and Shostakovich. Much of the playing was gripping, but the group have clearly taken messages on board from the world of historical performance practice, and on this occasion their fondness for eschewing vibrato did at times lead to playing that was merely anaemic.
The festival's lineup of musicians included violinists Jack Liebeck and Alexander Sitkovetsky, the former heard to good effect in a musicianly account of Beethoven's Ghost Trio with Guy Johnston and pianist Leon McCawley, the latter giving a beautifully scaled account of Bach's Chaconne in D minor. The two joined forces with effortless ease in a selection of Duos by Bartók, and gave an attractive performance of Kodály's unusually scored, upbeat Serenade with viola player Jennifer Stumm. Sitkovetsky, Brian O'Kane and Tinney also joined forces effectively to probe the darkness of Ian Wilson's First Last Words.
Soprano Lynda Lee was partnered by Tinney in songs by Schumann and Brahms, with Stumm adding her voice in Brahms's songs with viola. Lee sings with appealing tone and unobtrusive musicianship. But there's a plainness in her delivery, a failure to probe beneath the surface, which limits the rewards to be had from her performances.
The festival's Next Generation Artist concert was given by Miriam Kaczor (flute) and Adam McDonagh (piano), who offered a varied programme in which only the final work, Prokofiev's Flute Sonata, seemed to show the two players off to best effect.
The Westport festival has grown since I last attended it in 2015. There are now six concerts over three days, and unless I’m mistaken the town now has as many classical concerts concentrated into a single weekend as it used to be able to expect over a whole year.
The centre of activity has also shifted, and is now in the Town Hall Theatre, which has creature comforts that neither of its other, more atmospheric venues – Westport House and the Holy Trinity Church – can rival. One thing the festival currently lacks is the use of a concert grand piano. No one would expect the visiting string players to use anything but the best instrument available to them. The same should surely apply to the pianists, too. email@example.com