Review: Joanna MacGregor, piano, with BPO Chamber Ensemble, Brighton

Review by Richard Amey

Thursday, 18th March 2021, 6:05 am
Joanna MacGregor credit-Pal-Hansen

Livestream in lieu of the Coffee Concerts, presented by Brighton Dome and Brighton Festival (chief executive Andrew Comben) in association with Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra and Strings Attached chamber music support group.

On Brighton Dome stage (11.30am): Joanna MacGregor, piano, with BPO Chamber Ensemble: Ruth Rogers and Nicky Sweeney violins, Caroline Harris viola, Peter Adams cello. Robert Schumann, Piano Quartet in Eb Op 47; Brahms, Piano Quintet in Fm Op34.

Laughter among musicians immediately they finish a performance is not something a concert audience expect to hear. Applause obscures the sound – although laughing may be seen, and assumed to be the players’ triumphant relief at their final accomplishment.

Lockdown livestreams of classical music lack audience applause. To which I will add the word ‘yet’. Premiership football and Six Nations rugby televising adds crowd reaction sound effects to evoke ‘desirable’ pre-pandemic ‘atmosphere’. Might classical music TV producers become tempted?

If so, what kind of applause ought to follow Brahms’ Piano Quintet, after all the varied and variously-voiced melodies, counterpoint, cross-rhythms, and sometimes volcanic passion, defiance and daemonic dancing, is over? A full-throated Proms ovation? Do any closing pages of chamber music go closer than this to igniting an explosive crowd reaction?

On Sunday, the stark chuckles and giggles of MacGregor, Rogers, Sweeney, Harris and Adams were not only a reality surprising to some, but also a big clue. We know Brahms gets fired up by Hungarian dance music and the Quintet finale turns into something tautly sinous and emphatically climactic out there on the dance floor.

It’s not a Last Waltz. Its ending is gruff, to put it mildly. Like a gesture of aggression, or possibly sarcasm. Musically, it approximates in example to some familiar 20th Century Russian, more than 19th Century Magyar.

It speaks of the mysterious, bitter volatility inside him, even resentment, which to my thinking wells from his inner sorrow at foregoing romantic private-life love for the freedom he deemed necessary to create his public art. He knew the price to be paid: the forfeit of something we universally cherish, that we sense he has inside him from the tenderness we frequently hear in his music.

I’d argue this Quintet ending has plausible meaning, or at least a reverberation of something I’d not considered, before hearing that laughter. He could have imagined a dramatic final chord for choreographed dancers to make a hauty or flamboyant gesture to the audience. Maybe an exasperated publican telling out-of-hand revellers to clear off home. Or could it be a barb from Brahms’ throat – or even an operatic stab in the back?

Amid current stand-up comedy proliferation, Brahms would be in demand as a writer. Like some exceptional musicians (Beethoven included), he suffered fools ungladly. Brahms was a grouchy master of the put-down. Posterity tells us on leaving one social gathering he quipped, “If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted, I beg his pardon.”

To see and hear this live Quintet performance online was invigorating. Whenever Brahms adds his most personal instrument, the piano, to a chamber mix, it injects decisive urgency, punch and penetration to the texture and delivery. He had to add it to this Quintet to achieve its beef, just as he needed the orchestra to colour-in his Piano Concerto No 1, previously cast for two pianos. A formidable concert pianist, he’s pushing the known limits by adding his very own virtuosic and lyrical playing personality – as his most famous predecessors did in their own chamber music.

In her second would-be Coffee Concert, Joanna MacGregor, professorial in her music-reading glasses though ever unchained with her wildly-bubbling copper beech hair, led her inaugural chamber ensemble as the new conductor and artistic director of Brighton Philharmonic.

In ready allegiance to tackle this borderline orchestral music reduced to five instruments were highly-badged BPO members: fiddlers Ruth Rogers and Nicky Sweeney (both of the Iuventus String Quartet), violist Caroline Harris and cellist Peter Adams – the section leaders and principals of the London Mozart Players, Irish Chamber Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra and English String Orchestra.

Their Brahms Quintet connected with its orchestral leanings. There was plentiful rewarding sustained pianissimo in ensemble, also ensuring a rapt, poised and meditative slow movement. There was rhythmic tightness in the choppy music, and venom in the turbulent.

Pianist Paul Lewis remarked in 2019 that you don’t get too many laughs from Brahms’ music. Maybe it should come with a selection of his recorded insults! Therefore the standard stage presentation of everything in black except the musicians’ hair, flesh and instruments was appropriately heavy. But, for a relaxed sunny Sunday morning in mid-March, introduced on-screen by Andrew Comben in open-necked morning-stroll shirt, with the joyful blossoming Robert Schumann Piano Quartet awakening the concert, that dark dressing contradicted.

If, in Wagner, Sieglinde was Siegmund’s Spring, this Schumann piece is our chamber music equivalent. Little can disguise that it’s from Robert’s third year of wedding bliss with Clara, and its victory over his Father-in-Law from Hell – mentioning no name because I sense he might have been a factor in Robert’s eventual mental derangement.

This particular morning his Quartet tasted even better than a full-English. MacGregor and BPOCE’s introductory bars tiptoed in, sensual, almost as though Robert was stealing in with a surprise breakfast in bed for Clara, finding she’d gone back to sleep, having to wait, keep it warm, and try again later.

Robert, to the manner born in his chamber music compositional eruption of 1864, is in his purplest form. This performance projected eagerly the exuberant part interplay, the fugal web-spinning, the inspired tunemaking, and its busy and earnest traces of Beethovenian and irresistible sprightly scherzoing of Mendelssohn.

Camera work was satisfying, particularly the extension of the piano hands close-up to include – in-focus – the bottom of MacGregor’s sheet music. Sweeney’s body movement, seen behind Rogers during her instrumental rests, magnetised the viewer to the music.

I wondered during the Schumann if the cello had been under-balanced in the stage microphoning. If so, this was destined to undersell its potentially voluptuous solo in the slow movement. But I’d rather go away convinced that Adams’ quiet understatement here was in musical awareness of Robert’s declared two egos. In this movement, if Rogers was Robert’s outgoing ‘Florestan’, Adams was surely his introverted ‘Eusebius’.

Richard Amey

Home – Strings Attached (stringsattachedmusic.org.uk)