Private patronage was always the trigger for the composition of classical music, and it’s good to know the system is still alive and well: George Law decided to celebrate his 80th birthday by commissioning a piano quintet from Jonathan Dove.
This composer is one of contemporary music’s unsung heroes, turning out a steady stream of community operas and operatic arrangements – including a brilliant 18-player pocket version of Wagner’s Ring – plus many shorter works; his style is accessibly tonal, but he still finds new things to say in C major.
Written for the Schubert Ensemble, his Piano Quintet is carving out a niche for itself in the chamber repertoire, and here we could see how exhilarating it is to play. The piano ushers in the first and third movements with full-on toccata brio, and the string textures are cleverly woven round it; if the slow movement begins with a direct lift from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony before going on to echo Arvo Pärt, Dove manages to turn those styles into an eloquent language of his own.
The Schubert Ensemble’s concert had begun with a noble account of Brahms’s Piano Quartet No 3 Opus 60, and it ended with Elgar’s Piano Quintet in A minor, a valedictory work chosen for its appositeness to the Remembrance Day parades going past in the streets outside. That work too was impressively played, but, despite its celebrated ‘autumnal nostalgia’, nothing could disguise the fact that it’s derivative through and through, Brahms with the backbone removed.
The next day saw the stellar pairing of cellist Gautier Capucon with pianist Gabriela Montero. Capucon is best known as a chamber player with his violinist brother Renaud, while Montero’s claim to fame is as a dazzling improviser on any tune her listeners care to throw at her. But as a chamber duo they are superbly matched, as their accounts of Grieg’s Cello Sonata Opus 36, Schumann’s Phantasiestücke Opus 73, and Beethoven’s Variations on Mozart’s aria ‘Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen’ demonstrated.
Their Beethoven traversed a vast and varied terrain in nine short minutes, while their Schumann had lovely ardour. Grieg’s sonata could not have had more persuasive advocacy, but you could see why it’s seldom performed: it’s one of those heroic-romantic works which diligently go through the motions, but after it’s over you wonder what all the fuss was about.