Grieg: Quintet Fragment in Bb; Clapperton: “…den som ingen ser”; Grieg: Four Pieces for strings; Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57; Mustinen: Toccata

Mr McFall's Chamber

St Mark's Unitarian Church, 22 December 2010 4 stars

McFall'sIf they have some way to go to match the 37 years' longevity of the fabled Kronos Quartet, Mr McFall's Chamber has been going for a good long time now. Over some fifteen years, the ensemble has fashioned a distinctive niche in Scotland's musical life, one that bears certain valuable similarities with the iconic Californians. They have built a rapport with their audience that transcends the repertoire chosen for any specific occasion—no mean feat for a group specializing in contemporary music. Further, they have developed a particular rapport with the working composers whose scores they perform, quietly building relationships in the way that Scottish Opera has recently been emulating with its 5:15 project.

Where Kronos have their ineffable cool, McFall's have an ineffable élan that is quite their own: a light touch blends with consummate musicianship and deep passion to engage and enchant their audience. Friday's performance was no exception. One could be forgiven for feeling that we've had quite enough facing north, thank you, with the severe weather outside, but the works selected between them reminded us of the human side of Baltic life, with its warmth and community spirit.

The first half focused on Grieg, with two of his own works and a recent quintet by James Clapperton which develops thematic material derived from fragments found in Grieg's notebooks—including the opening quintet fragment. I'm not sure that many ensembles would have brought this item off in quite the way McFall's did. It is a charming and absorbing piece, but it stops utterly abruptly, and the temptation to make some adjustment, or even simply to foreshadow the end by slowing up must be great, but here the music just cruised along until it vanished.

Having previewed ''…den som ingen ser'', it was pleasant, nevertheless, to be surprised on two counts by Clapperton's work, originally commissioned to mark the centenary of Grieg's death in 2007. The title ('…that which no one sees') refers to a folk melody whose text invokes deep, silent grief. Yet the score is far from bleak; in its opening phase, a strong, child-like skipping motif gives the music a considerable drive as the subtle and sensuous working out of ideas proceeds. The harmonic language is simple but unconventional, and thus distant from Grieg's; nevertheless, the quintet fragment impressed its presence on the large scale, with its sudden ending skilfully emulated in Clapperton's diaphanous conclusion. For all the talk of simplicity, though, the score is rich and challenging—a challenge met with superb sensitivity by the ensemble.

It is difficult to believe the stories told about Shostakovich's piano quintet—that it was discussed in the trams, and sung on the streets. Perhaps the tales are exaggerated, but Shostakovich's capacity to connect with a broad audience is real enough. It hadn't struck me before, but that certain familiarity in his thematic material—a familiarity that tends to recur even when he isn't using his signature DSCH motif—has an orality about it, making a context for communication not only with his audience, but with himself. When a scrap of melody from the fifth symphony appears in the first movement here, then, one is alert to potential significance, but what the allusions to the 24 Preludes and Fugues might mean… who knows? It's a work of broad range, from solemn intensity to sparkling bravado, which affords all the scope the ensemble needs to fill out the score with their appealing persona.

Rounding things off, Olli Mustonen's Toccata reminded me of Clint Mansell's Death is The Road to Awe, heard at the Kronos Quartet's Festival outing this summer. In a similar kind of way it was existentially satisfying without being at all challenging — a bit too easy on the ear for my taste.

By Peter Cudmore

Photo: Mr McFall's Chamber


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