Saturday, 22 June 2019

Chineke! Chamber Ensemble in Saint-Saens, Wallen & Coleridge-Taylor at Wigmore Hall

Chineke! Chamber Ensemble
Chineke! Chamber Ensemble
Saint-Saens, Errollyn Wallen, Coleridge-Taylor; Chineke! Chamber Ensemble; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 June 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Three contrasting large-scale chamber pieces from the chamber ensemble of Chineke! in an evening notable for the players sense of energy and engagement

Having made its Wigmore Hall debut in 2018, the Chineke! Chamber Ensemble returned for a Friday Late on 21 June 2019 when it performed an engaging programme of large-scale chamber music with Camille Saint-Saens' Septet, the London premiere of Errollyn Wallen's Nnenna and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Nonet.

The ensemble consists of principal players from the Chineke! Orchestra which was founded in 2015 by the double bass player, Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE, to provide career opportunities for young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe, and the chamber ensemble debuted in 2017. My sense of the novelty of seeing an entirely BME ensemble playing at the Wigmore Hall made me realise quite how accustomed (and de-sensitised) we become to the generally white focus of much classical music making. Yet once the musicians started playing, all these issues fell away as we enjoyed an evening of vibrant music making, with the 11 players (variously combined in the works) giving a real sense of chamber music ensemble yet also conveying their delight and enjoyment of the music.

Saint-Saens' Septet is a rather unlikely piece, written in 1879/80 for string quartet, double bass, piano and trumpet, it provides a chamber role for an instrument (the trumpet) which doesn't usually get to show its subtler side.Whilst Saint-Saens does allow the trumpet fanfare like moments in the first movement, for much of the piece trumpeter Aaron Akugbo displayed admirable discipline in reining in the instrument's sound to join in a real chamber ensemble. The first movement was full of energy and I was struck by the engaging yet sometimes unlikely combinations of instrumental textures. The players showed crisp discipline yet seemed to be having great fun. The second movement was a very lively minuet with a rather magical trio where the trumpet and strings played in unison over rippling piano figures from Rebeca Omordia. The soulful third movement has some surprisingly intense moments (you don't think of Saint-Saens as an intense Romantic figure) with a great sense of character in the ensembles. And we finished with a vibrantly engaging and very perky final movement, sensing both the players vivid engagement with the music and the fun they were having.

Errollyn Wallen's Nnenna was written in memory of Mgbafor Nnenna Inyama (1963-1986) and was premiered in 2018. Written for septet of violin, viola, cello, bass, horn, bassoon, and clarinet the work is in a single multi-section movement ending with a version of the song Sweet Mother by Prince Nico Mbarga (sometimes called 'Africa's Anthem) which Wallen included because Nnenna's mother was Nigerian (as was the father of Chi-Chi Nwanoku, the founder of Chineke!). The work plunged straight in with rhapsodic passages for clarinet, and Wallen's writing for the large chamber ensemble used imaginative and constantly changing textures where one or other instrument might take the lead. The results sounded both fresh and familiar, with a sense of mmelancholy at the opening gradually moving to more upbeat moments. Along the way we had passages that seemed to move towards the salon, and throughout I felt there was something rather French about the way Wallen was writing for the instrumental combinations. Preceded by a rather madcap moment, the final section using 'Africa's Anthem' was lively and toe-tapping.

The music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor still does not seem to have reached the mainstream, despite (or perhaps because of) the extreme popularity of Hiawatha in the period before the Second World War, so we are still woefully ignorant of his ouput. I have to confess to never having come across Coleridge-Taylor's Nonet, a work which was written during his time studying under Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. Written for the combination of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, bass and piano. The nonet was not a typical classical format, though Spohr's Grand Nonetto of 1813 spawned a number of imitators. In fact, Coleridge-Taylor did not use Spohr's instrumentation, adding a piano instead of Spohr's flute, and you wonder whether the work was the result of one of Stanford's challenges to his pupils (Stanford famously challenged them to write something to equal Brahms' Piano Quintet and Coleridge-Taylor won in 1893 the year before he wrote the Nonet).

Certainly the work deserves the epithet Brahmsian, we notice this from the opening moments with their flowing, almost orchestral textures. But there is also something a bit unbuttoned and perhaps out-doorsy too, an engaging quality which leavens the seriousness. The opening movement flowed easily, moving between different textures with instruments weaving in and out. The slow movement featured a rhapsodic piano with more measured instrumental responses, and Coleridge-Taylor created some really lovely textures. This was a lyrical romantic movement, without a particular depth of intensity. The third movement was lively with perky rhythms and a lyrical middle section. The finale returned to the sound world of the opening movement, and Coleridge-Taylor seemed positively profligate with his memories. Again I appreciated the ensemble's sense of energy and enjoyment.

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