Varenne Ensemble

Concert date: 31 October 2014
Reviewed by: JRC

Mexican flights delayed to Europe caused a change of programme for Nadsa's October concert. Cellist Robin Michael's rehearsal schedule became so tight that more Brahms was substituted for the less well known Fruhling, as Newton Abbot caught Robin between Budapest and London engagements.

The Varenne Ensemble's opening Allegro movement of Beethoven's Piano trio No. 4 was an engaging mixture of mellifluous balance and vivacity. In the Adagio we had a complete change of mood where the cello took the sentimental tuneful lead, the clarinet later echoing the phrases and the piano becoming their accompaniment. The theme and variations of the third movement began in sprightly fashion as no doubt befits a theme which was a 'popular song' of Beethoven's era. A contrasting reflective variation was followed by musical drama that subdued to a more conventional close. The Varenne treated us and Beethoven well!

Robin Michael and Dan Tong then played Brahms' Cello sonata No. 1 in E minor: not on our official programme, but fortunately in their recording repertoire. Opening the first movement, the deep and moving resonance of the cello gave me a tingle factor moment. Soon after, the piano became an intense accompaniment. The second movement's style took us back in time. The playing became light, and I wondered whether it was by chance or intention, [given Brahms' interest in music from Renaissance to Classical periods] that I should have been reminded of a hurdy-gurdy, since that instrument had been very fashionable in the 18th century. The third movement, being largely in fugue form, continued the retrogressive style, playfully at times, to a spirited coda.

Sonata for Clarinet and Cello by Phyllis Tate [1911 – 1987] followed the interval. Here we were in different territory. The slow opening movement of pensive melancholy leaves no hiding place for performers: we were treated to a riveting sequence of phrases demonstrating just how glorious and varied the Clarinet and Cello can be in the right pairs of hands. The Vivo started briskly, later becoming more pensive. However, Elaine Cocks and Robin Michael deftly kept us in mind of the tempo with which the movement begins, and also ends. The Sarabanda was played with superb delicacy, and conveyed a ghostly quality that was maintained into the more complex finale. The presence of Phyllis Tate's daughter [Celia Frank] at this performance gave it a very special sense of occasion.

Brahms' Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A minor returned us to a wonderful world of melody and instrumental interplay. The drama and variety of the Allegro was beautifully matched by the thoughtful calm of the Adagio. The grace of the Andante led us to the more assertive Allegro's conclusion.

Elaine Cocks, Robin Michael and Dan Tong had drawn a good and appreciative audience for this the second concert of the NADSA season. Their musicianship and cohesion was a privilege to experience live in this ensemble, and all the more impressive considering they have separate musical careers.