Intimate Letters: Timothy West (reader), Pavão String Quartet — Kerenza Peacock (1st violin), Jenny Sacha (2nd violin), Natalia Gomes (viola), Bryony James (cello, also of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra) — Connaught Theatre, Thursday May 23.
IF music has no words, neither sung, nor written in explanation, we strive to learn what it is saying. Instrumental classical music thrives on staying verbally silent. Its composers score when they reveal little or nothing about its creation and leave to the listener’s imagination how it is heard and its possible meaning interpreted.
Some give clues. “It’s full of romantic feeling,” said Edward Elgar before the debut in 1910 of his Violin Concerto. On its publication the world found he had written at the top: “Herein is enshrined the soul of . . .” That meant the romantic feeling was not about his love of the countryside, horse racing or football, but a person. “Romantic”? Ah, a woman . . . A muse? A special relationship?
Yes. We now know from his letters that Elgar was expressing his deep friendship with the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais. He called her Windflower. He pointed out to her his Windflower theme in the second movement. Her portrait. He referred to the piece as “our concerto”.
“Yes, it’s too emotional,” he confessed to a friend, “but I love it!”
Windflower was Mrs Alice Stuart Wortley. The music she helped begat leaves little doubt that among shared pain and longing there had come pleasure. Unless Elgar was imagining it from within a cocoon of Edwardian celibacy. But such is the mood and flavour of the Concerto that it surely reveals some form of fulfilment. We don’t know how much Mrs Alice Elgar knew.
In this same first decade of the last century, in Moravia, it’s most distinctive and original composer Leos Janacek was writing explicit love letters to a Mrs Kamila Stosslova, a 35-year-old mother of two and almost 30 years his junior. Among his words of fervour, agony and longing there could probably come no pleasure except in his imagination. She wrote back stressing how impossibly he was hoping and unrealistically he was pretending.
But a huge muse she was and Janacek, the composer of three striking and acclaimed operas, creatively rode the waves of this self-delusory semi-relationship with his Kamila. This written correspondence, suppressed until her death by his fully cognisant, embarrassed and slighted wife, poured out during a course of years and one of its productive high spots was his String Quartet No 2 — subtitled ‘Intimate Letters’ by Janacek.
Strongly drawn from the example of great BBC Radio 3 and 4 sound programmes, this drama, seen on tour at the Connaught by an audience of 132, illuminates music radically different from Elgar’s yet hardly less expressive.
Janacek’s language and musical structure in this Quartet is the opposite to Elgar’s. It never achieves any sustained flow. It’s over-wrought and erratic. It swings wildly erratically in mood. It’s unbuttoned one minute, zipped up the next. Now it’s overflowingly passionate, now it’s withdrawn and bruised. It’s a succession of ocean waves here, it’s a nervous trickling brook there. First a shuddering assault, second a tremulous withdrawal.
Timothy West, a young 78 returning to the Connaught, read as Janacek exerpts from the letters between appropriate selected extracts from the Quartet, played by the Pavão. After this sampling came the whole String Quartet with West having departed the stage.
These combined thespian and musical forces did the music immense service. People who would undoubtedly have struggled to understand and appreciate, let alone enjoy Janacek’s musical utterances, heard them now explained, and experienced a power. And when it was over these listeners confessed the resultant impact the Quartet had on them. “Blown away” was one admission I heard when it was over.
The audience were kept guessing. There was no accompanying printed programme. The Pavãos gave a routine and slight rough performance of Dvorak’s American Quartet to kick the evening off, entirely announced, in an exposing, dry theatre acoustic. Audience members unfamiliar but uninformed by print, applauded after each movement, thinking they were listening to four separate unnamed pieces.
After this rather prompt interval, came the Janacek, its first two movements also being applauded during an accomplished and vivid performance by the Pavão of high drama, incisive rhythm, and textures of all basic elements of planet earth.
Alongside the young, all-female, Grammy Award-winning Pavão Quartet, West appeared quite to enjoy his role of the middle-aged composer trapped (not without some humorous moments) in undimmed male thoughts and feelings for an exciting woman in her prime —while his own wife, the actress Prunella Scales, watched and listened from the stalls.
After the interval she emerged, apparently from the dressing room, where one might imagine, in character as Mrs Leos Janacek, she may have issued her husband a finger-wagging warning to behave himself this evening.