Music at Paxton

Paxton House, by Berwick

Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland alumnus Ryan Corbett recently became the first player of the accordion to join the BBC’s career-making New Generation Artists scheme, and it is also true that “box” players are a rare sight in the Picture Gallery of Paxton House, the splendid principal venue for the returned Music at Paxton Summer Festival of Chamber Music in the Borders.

The very handsome Italian instrument played by the young man from Milngavie made an impressive noise under the glass cupola of the portrait-and-landscape-lined room, as he spanned centuries of music composed for much larger keyboards as well as his own.

The Bach Prelude & Fugue and Scarlatti Sonata with which he began displayed that range, as well his own remarkable virtuosity. I am not clear how it is possible to achieve the variation in voice, as well as tone and dynamics, we heard in his approach to music written for organ and piano, but it was certainly audible. And the visual advantage of the front-facing accordion is that his remarkably dextrous technique could not have been easier to admire.

His arrangements of Tchaikovsky’s Romance in F Minor and Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso also made familiar music very fresh, the latter sounding as if it were written for the instrument, and the former acquiring a flavour of the Left Bank in Paris.

French composer Franck Angelis also featured in the recital, his Etude adapting a theme of Astor Piazzolla. The Argentinian master’s influence could be heard in the third movement of the Sonata No 1 for accordion by Alexander Nagaev, although the first shared rhythms with Meade Lux Lewis’s Honky Tonk Train Blues and the second the dramatic atmosphere of Phantom of the Opera.

Corbett’s encore of Semionov’s Don Rhapsody also came from the school of contemporary Russian composition for the instrument, but the most fascinating recent work in the programme was Czech Jindrich Feld’s Konzertstuck, from 1974 and an exploration of the technical limits of the accordion with contrasting spare moments.

Corbett was back on stage at the end of Sunday afternoon, as a guest of the Maxwell Quartet, joining in arrangements of traditional music from Lewis and Shetland that concluded the versatile group’s three year tenure as Music at Paxton’s resident group.

Festival Director Angus Smith was quite clear that he intends to invite them back, but the programme they performed was the perfect conclusion to that relationship. Haydn’s Opus 77 No 2 Quartet in F is the sort of repertoire at which the Maxwell excels, ensemble balance perfect from the start, rhythmic phrases passed round with glee in the second movement, as was the Andante melody, which is Haydn at his loveliest.

It is a surprisingly rare phenomenon – print production schedules being a factor – but the Paxton programme note perfectly matched the group’s performance of Brahms’ 1876 String Quartet No 3, and had the quotes from the composer to match their approach.

As with the Haydn, the slow movement is the most Brahmsian of Brahms, but throughout the piece the players found a lightness of touch that distinguished the performance, especially in the musical playfulness of the third movement and the finale. Not even a short hiatus to rectify a tuning problem with George Smith’s violin disturbed their flow.

The party-piece of this fond “adieu” was a selection from Roxanna Panufnik’s collaboration with poet Wendy Cope, “The Audience”. In singer and broadcaster Jamie MacDougall the quartet had the perfect collaborator for this comic dissection of the theatre of chamber music performance. MacDougall wisely did not labour the rhymes in the text with a characterful delivery of Cope’s storyline, introducing us to the musicians, the critic, the couple on a first date and the interval drinker. Panufnik’s music is as witty in its own style, and as – I think – the only working scribe in this audience, I’ll take her sonic depiction of the anguished crafting of these words over Cope’s cynicism any day!

Keith Bruce