Monday, 23 September 2013

Vivid vim and vigour - the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

The Old Palace, Hatfield House
The Old Palace,
Hatfield House
Friday 20 September saw the opening concert of the second Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, whose artistic director is cellist Guy Johnston. The festival had started the previous day with an education event at St Etheldreda's Church in Old Hatfield. Friday night's concert took place at the Old Palace at Hatfield House. Guy Johnston and members of the Aronowitz Ensemble were joined by guests to perform Brahms's Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111, Britten's Lachrymae, Op. 48a in the composer's version for viola and strings, and Mendelssohn's Octet in E flat Major.

The Old Palace at Hatfield is the surviving wing of a palace built in 1485, the wing contained the palace's banqueting hall. It is this room which was the venue for the concert and proving to have an acoustic highly suitable for chamber music.

The performance was preceded by welcoming speeches by artistic director Guy Johnston and Lord Salisbury, who owns Hatfield House. Lord Salisbury joked that having the festival was a wonderfully economic way of emulating his predecessor, the first Earl of Salisbury, who was a great patron of the arts and employed his own musicians.

The Brahms quintet was performed by Magnus Johnston, Nadia Wijzenbeek, Tom Hankey, Lily Francis and Guy Johnston, all members of the Aronowitz Ensemble. The group plunged straight into Brahms strenuous string writing, with Guy Johnston adding the ecstatic first subject, and some warm tones in the violas for the second subject. This was a very vivid, young person's Brahms, strenuous at times but flexible and a constant feeling of movement. Playing throughout was very lyrically intense and strongly characterised.

The second movement Adagio was lyrical and gentle, with a lovely solo from Magnus Johnston's first violin and complex interplay between the players. The textures of the movement were quite complex, and the players made it sound both intensely moving and very sophisticated. The third movement, Un poco Allegretto, was certainly not a scherzo but a triple time movement which was nicely flowing, though the players brought out a lot of the drama underneath, complementing the rather seductive waltz-like trio.

The fourth movement, Vivace ma non troppo persto, was lively but felt curiously unsettled. The players kept the pace moving and the performance was very involving, with the episodic nature of the movement giving rise to some lovely gypsy-like moments. This was a lively, upfront performance of Brahms's late quintet, the performers' infectious enthusiasm for the music was catching.

Viola player Lawrence Power was the soloist in Britten's Lachrymae. Britten wrote the work in 1950 for William Primrose, and in 1976 made a version for viola and strings. The viola player Cecil Aronowitz, for whom the Aronowitz Ensemble is named, gave the first British performance of this version. The piece is essentially a set of variations on a John Dowland song (very apt given that Dowland was in the employ of Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury). Before the performance of Lachrymae, Power and the violas and cellos of the ensemble performed the two Dowland songs that Britten quotes , giving richly resonant and expressive performances.

Power was accompanied by a string ensemble, the players from the Brahms quintet augmented to 10 players. Though Lachrymae is a set of variations, Britten sets it so that the full Dowland song is only played at the very end in a magically radiant conclusion. The opening arose out of nothing, muted fragments and wisps of melody, rather eerie in fact. Powers' viola is rather a large one and he made a richly vibrant and vivid sound, very velvety even with the mute on.

Initially Britten's accompaniment is very understated so that the focus was firmly on Power's viola, with some interesting contrasts between the solo and accompaniment including a lovely section of solo pizzicato answered by held chords in the strings.

As the variations progressed the music got more demonstrative and Britten revealed more of the fragments of Dowland's melodies. The solo part is quite challenging, played with superb control and vibrancy by Power, leading to the magically radiant full statement of Dowland's melody at the conclusion.

After the interval eight of the players led by Esther  Hoppe on first violin and including Lawrence Power on viola, joined together for a performance of Mendelssohn's Octet, originally written in 1825 when he was 16 and revised in 1832. There was a lovely sweep and great dash to the opening, marked Allegro moderato ma con fuoco. The players certainly took the con fuoco markings to heart. This was performance full of vim and vigour, quite incisive at times, but with moments of great delicacy; a performance where everything was vividly heightened. At moments when tension eased there was some lovely sensitive playing and fine phrasing. The run up to the recapitulation brought a lovely build up of tension.

The second movement, Andante, was richly elegant with a lovely singing tone from Esther Hoppe on violin one, but as the movement progressed the players brought out the drama of the piece. With the Scherzo, Mendelssohn's fairies came skittering on stage, in a brilliantly intense performance, though there were a couple of moments when the skittering was too headlong leading to untidiness. There was an interesting steeliness underlying the skittering though with a nice delicacy too. The finale, Presto, returned to the vim and vigour of the opening. This was a high energy performance though again there were perhaps moments when enthusiasm got the better of the players. But it was an intensely vivid, up front account of Mendelssohn's exhuberant music, very up front with the performers cantering along carrying us along with them. They rightly drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.

The festival continued throughout the weekend with Frank Bridge, Faure's La Bonne Chanson and Brahms songs sung by Ruby Hughes, Strauss and Schubert in the Marble Hall of Hatfield House, Mozart in Etheldreda's Church on Sunday morning and as a finale on Sunday evening a string orchestra made up all the players from the weekend performing Grieg, Elgar, and Mozart.

I look forward to next year's festival

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