At the April Chamber Studio Hans Keller Forum

Hans Keller as violist in a string quartet

First things first: what shape pasta is the subdominant? No, dear reader, you’ve not strayed into a cookery blog. This was a question, gently posed, by pianist Alasdair Beatson to the Kyan Quartet during one of their mentoring sessions at the April Hans Keller Forum at the Music School here in Cambridge. Why? I hear you ask. Well, his aim was to encourage the ensemble to think about the softer character of the sub-dominant key as opposed to the dominant (or indeed the tonic). Intrigued? Read on…

April’s residence was the last in the 22/23 Forum bringing together the Kyan, Hirvi and Aestus Quartets and the Astatine Piano Trio for a final series of intensive mentoring on their chosen works. Mentors this time were pianist Alasdair Beatson and violinist Richard Ireland (John Myerscough sadly was not able to be there as he was touring the States with the Doric Quartet in his capacity as their cellist).

After an initial welcome, it was down to work immediately. This time, the Hirvi Quartet were working on Beethoven Op 18 no.6; the Astatine Piano Trio on Mendelssohn’s first Piano Trio and Beethoven’s Op. 1 no. 2, the Kyan Quartet were unpicking Mendelssohn’s A minor Quartet, Op. 13 and Haydn Op. 64 no.1 and the Aestus – by some magic of telepathy – had also elected to continue their work on Op. 18 no.6 alongside Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet. 

Once again, very generously, I was allowed to eavesdrop on some of the closed sessions, witnessing alchemy taking place. My heartfelt thanks go to the ensembles and to Alasdair and Richard. So, what did I learn? How long have you got? A few vignettes must suffice.

Let’s turn first to the Mendelssohn A minor Quartet and the Kyan Quartet: Alasdair was at pains to encourage the quartet to think more widely than “just the notes” (not that they weren’t already doing that of course…). And also to think about the work itself: did they think the work fell into the Classic or Romantic era? Probably a bit of both, but primarily to be viewed through the Classic prism and – vitally – always to remember that Mendelssohn would have been writing within the context of the conventions of his time which performers would immediately have understood. For the wonderful, intense, slow introduction, the Kyans were encouraged to see whether they could imbue it with an almost improvisatory nature, concentrating on the purity of the sound, listening to each other and allowing those gorgeous opening phrases to unfurl (imho, one of the hardest introductions to bring off – it surely encompasses a whole universe of feeling in just those 18 bars). The Kyans most certainly succeeded – I was on the edge of my seat. To my shame, I was so engrossed in what was happening before my ears that I forgot to take any notes after that.

Here’s the Emerson Quartet’s version:

Where next? How about Richard working with the Aestus on the heart-rending “Malinconia” movement of Beethoven’s Op. 18 no. 6? He started by making the point that in only 44 bars, the emotional journey is huge (something Beethoven was expert at, I think). In those 44 intense bars, there is so much to consider when performing: for example, the voicing of the opening is key, with the first fiddle injecting the “right amount of vitamin D” in the first eight bars, but perhaps less at bar 9, and making sure the antiphonal exchanges between second and first violins at bars 13 and 16 are just that (note the alternate f and p dynamics – emphasising that antiphony).

Here’s the Emerson again…

Richard also worked with the Aestus on the slow movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” – that terrifying set of variations which conveys such a bleak sense of impending doom. Get the technique right, create an environment of ease for yourself, and all will come out as you would like it to. How easy is that for me to type! Richard also emphasised the importance of ensuring that the left hand (the one putting fingers on the strings) is comfortable, that the correct “hand shape” is there, ready, to hit the required notes in the right place on the string(s). That then allows the right hand (the one with the bow) to do what it needs to without stress. The overall point being, of course, that one needs to be on top of the technical side of things in order to free you up to convey what you want to in the music. “Invite the bow to do the right thing…but with your left hand”. And it was from this session that one of my favourite pieces of advice emerged: “sometimes you need a friend in a hot air balloon just to help lift the bow arm to achieve the effect you are seeking.” What a marvellous mental image which I feel sure Hoffnung would have depicted with great relish.

MS of part of Death and the Maiden

Let’s return briefly to Alasdair working with the Astatine Trio on the opening Adagio of the Beethoven they were studying. “What does adagio mean?” he asked –  answer: “at ease” (from the Italian “ad agio”). “What kind of visitors get an adagio introduction?” Answer: probably those of high status. So something to bear in mind in performance and the trio then spent some considerable time hand-crafting just those opening few bars concentrating on conveying just the right atmosphere of anticipation. There was plenty of practical advice for the pianist of course, such as suggesting no pedal during the introduction, and spreading that first chord in a voluptuous fashion, giving a sense of grandeur which contrasts splendidly with the much lighter Allegro of the first movement proper. And of course I can’t not bring in a “wardrobe moment” here. No, not appropriate dress, but Alasdair’s delightful way of conveying that choices need to be made all along the line – this time it was of fingering(s) for the pianist at the end of the second subject.

And how about this lively performance from the 1970s by Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern and Leonard Rose:

On the Thursday afternoon, the ensembles were granted a little rest as we listened to a thoughtful presentation by Keller research student Nicky Swett about “pre-compositional thought in Britten’s Second String Quartet.” The process of composition and the hidden unity across a work were very close to Hans Keller’s heart, so much so that he composed several functional analyses to explore the phenomenon, one of which was for this quartet. The Aestus Quartet were on hand to offer live illustrations (this was the work they studied in the first residence back in the autumn) and I was heartened to hear one of them say that she found the “real quartet” and the FA blurring in her mind. She is in good company, as the pianist Clifford Curzon found exactly the same happening to him when performing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, for which Keller had composed an FA.

And to round the residence off in style, we were treated to a final concert with each ensemble performing a work chosen from their respective repertoires. It was a treat rounded off by the Astatine Trio giving us a breathtaking performance of the Mendelssohn C minor Piano Trio. I can’t give you the Astatine, but Here is Trio Wanderer instead:

It has been so rewarding over the last three sessions to see the partnership between mentors and ensembles develop into a true joint effort displaying mutual respect – and indeed affection – between the two. Surely as it should be! For my part I am humbled in the face of such an abundance of talent displayed by the ensembles and the deep wisdom and experience of their mentors. The result? An infusion of the works being studied with greater depth and understanding. Bravo one and all and I wish everyone well for their futures! 

…and finally, I asked Richard Ireland what prompted him to act as a mentor. His answer? “It’s the best feeling there is to slip in briefly as a catalyst to the process of talented young musicians delving into a score and helping to unlock their expressive connection to it.” Absolutely!


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