Saturday, 22 September 2012

Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

Hatfield House
Last year, Haftield House celebrated 400 years since the house was built in 1611, with a group of musical events in and around the house. Out of this came the idea for a music festival and the Hatfield Chamber Music Festival was born. This year's inaugural concert was on Thursday 20 September in Hatfield Old Palace, where Festival Director Guy Johnston join a group of musicians in a programme of Haydn, Chausson and Schubert.  The concert I attended, on Friday 21 September, was in the glorious surroundings of the Marble Hall of Hatfield House itself.


Music was important to Robert Cecil, the builder of Hatfield House and Cecil's descendant, the present Lord  Salisbury, in a spoken introduction,  touched on this and on the enjoyment of bringing music back to the hall. It is not a large space in concert hall terms, seating around 150 people. But with the copious amounts of wood on the walls (all elaborately carved) and the marble floor, the acoustics are idea for chamber music.

For the concert, members of the Aronowitz Ensemble (in which Guy Johnston plays) were joined by other artists for a programme which consisted of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, Beethoven's Piano Trio Opus 97, The Archduke and a selection of Schubert songs.

Clarinettist Mark Simpson joined Lily Francis, Tom Hankey, Tim Boulton and Robin Michael to play Mozart's Clarinet Quintet. Simpson won both the BBC Young Musician and BBC Young Composer competitions in 2006, the only person ever to do both. He is currently a Making Music Young Artist and one of the 2012 Young Classical Artists Trust winners, and his piece Sparks opened the Last Night of the Proms. He played the quintet on a basset clarinet, the instrument for which Mozart wrote the piece. This is slightly longer than a clarinet, thus giving the instrument a useful extension at the bottom of its range; something Mozart utilised in both the quintet and the concerto. Anton Stadler, for whom the works were written, was something of a devotee of the instrument, but apart from the Mozart works it has disappeared from view. Talking to Mark Simpson after the concert it turns out that he is rather keen on the instrument as well and has already recorded a group of new works which he has commissioned for basset clarinet and piano as part of his disc for NMC records.

Perhaps the tempo of the first movement Allegro was a little on the steady side, but the musicians gave no hint that they might be anything other than regular chamber music partners. The sense of interplay between Simpson and the violins (Francis and Hankey) was very strong. This work can sometimes turn into a mini-concerto for the clarinet, but here Simpson was very much part of a group. The vivid phrasing of the violins was matched by Simpson, this was a very modern performance with no hint of historically informed play, the young musicians gave us their own feelings for the work.

Simpson's tone on the instrument was simply world class, beautifully even and with a rich depth to it. At times he dared to play very quietly indeed, though I felt that overall the group's playing of the opening was rather more than the piano marking in the score. In the Larghetto, attention does focus on the clarinet and here Simpson gave us a lovely seamless legato line, nicely echoed by Francis's violin with her singing tone. In this movement Simpson's quiet tones on the repeat of the opening section, was just stunning. And even Robin Michael's got a moment of glory on the cello, though this isn't a work which explores the possibilities of the two lower instruments.

The Menuetto was taken at a quite lively tempo, perhaps verging on the hectic at times, but a nice contrast to the Larghetto. In the first trio, with the clarinet silent, there was a chance for Francs to shine with her sweet tone and vivid phrasing.  Simpson clearly enjoyed the hints of more popular clarinet writing which Mozart introduced into the second trio.

The group opened the final Allegretto at quite a steady tempo, but making the main them very marked and distinctly perky. Bouton's viola finally got a chance to shine in the minor variation, though I could have done with a little more presence. And we finished with a wonderful flurry of fast arpeggios on the clarinet.

A fine and engaging performance, showcasing not only Simpson's clarinet playing but the sympathetic talents of the other players and their ability to engage with each other. Only the odd unguarded note suggesting that they don't play together regularly.

Next, soprano Sophie Daneman and pianist Tom Poster performed a group of six Schubert songs with an emphasis on his Goethe settings. Daneman has a lovely bright, clear soprano voice with a very free top, with a fast vibrato which she uses expressively but which can develop under pressure. She is a highly communicative performer and though I would have like more to be made of the German text, she was engaging and involving, bringing the audience into her performance. She introduced each group of songs herself.

She opened with Frühlingsglaube given a nicely simply performance, but one which hinted that the singer was trying to convince herself that all will be well. This was followed by a trio of songs, Die Forelle, An der Mond and Erlkönig. Tom Poster's piano introduction to Die Forelle was engaging and characterful, and when the voice entered, so was Daneman. This was story telling, allowing the song to speak. An der Mond is deceptively simple, and Daneman responded with some beautifully melodic phrasing, drawing the audience into the performance.

I have to confess that this was the first time that I had heard Erlkönig sung by a female voice, but there is no reason why this song should not work just as many others have been sung by both sexes. Poster's piano playing here was brilliant. Daneman nicely articulated the different characters, with stunningly quiet sections for when the Erlking sing in contrast to the intense panic of the young child, and the gusts coming from the piano. All in all a powerful and moving performance.

Finally a pair of love songs, Gretchen am Spinrade and Seligkeit. In Gretchen, Daneman and Poster kept the opening verses gentle and low-key, but still intense, which provided for a striking contrast with the outburst at the end. And the conclusions was almost painfully uncontrolled. By contrast,  Seligkeit was simple and entrance.

There was just one work in the second half, Beethoven's Archduke Trio, played by Esther Hoppe (violin), Guy Johnston (cello) and Alastair Beaton (piano). Beethoven dedicated the trio toe Rudolph, Archduke of Austria, who was the youngest of the Austrian Emperor's children. Rudolph was in fact a composer and Beethoven his piano and composition teacher. The work was premiered by Beethoven at a charity concert in 1811 and it was the last time he played the piano in public, his playing having been compromised by his deafness.

The work is a substantial piece, which explores the possibilities of the medium. The piano trio can be a tricky medium to bring off and doing so using modern instruments requires a degree of trust between the players. Using an 18th century forte-piano it would be virtually impossible for the pianist to overwhelm the two strings, but with a modern grand it is all too easy for the piano to do so, even if the strings ganged up on it. Happily there were no such problems in this performance, Hoppe, Johnston  and Beaton displayed strong degree of trust and confidence, digging deeply into Beethoven's work and giving us some strong, intelligent music making.

Beaton clearly had a feel for the balance in the piece and was a sensitive player, ensuring that the piano took a back seat where necessary, but still able to bring out lashings of very strong tone in the required places. Hoppe brought a new intensity to her playing to complement the singing sweetness from earlier and Johnston produced some wonderfully dark hued tones from his 1714 David Tecchler cello.

The opening Allegro moderato really carried us away, with a good feeling of dialogue between the players, What struck me, on listening to it live for the first time in some years, was how Beethoven explored the possibilities of the different textures possible with the instruments. I was particularly struck by the passages with the strings playing pizzicato.  The Scherzo started beautifully grazioso, but the work is slightly schizophrenic with the trio being rather dark, with its slightly curious rhythm. Beethoven, by repeating the trios, ensures that this alternation between beauty and darkness becomes rather obsessive. The players brought out the slightly unnerving feeling of this movement. In contrast, the Andante opened with some beautifully sustained quiet tones. Johnston was really able to make his instrument sing darkly in the cello and piano sections, but throughout the movement the give and take between the players brought out the flexibility and daring of Beethoven's structural thoughts.

Finally, Beethoven starts with a rather silly tune and then develops it into a highly sophisticated Allegro Moderato. There were some wonderfully vivid strenuous passages, the warm acoustic ensuring that every detail could still be heard. As in the previous movement, there was a disturbing element to Beethoven's writing which the group brought out.

This wasn't a cosy performance, it was deeply thought out one, with the three young players trusting each other and enabling each other to dig deeply into Beethoven's work. Not surprisingly this, and the rest of the programme, was very well received by the audience.

Festivals, particularly new ones, need to have a sense of place and Hatfield certainly has that in spades. Not only are they utilising the distinctive venues which are available but many of the musicians are from Hertfordshire. It was clear that many of the audience at last night's concert were local and were going to be going to many of the other concerts in the weekend.

The festival continues with Dohnany, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky in St. Etheldreda's Church tonight, with Fruhling and Schumann tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon. The festival concludes on Sunday evening with The Sixteen singing in the Old Palace. But it is more than just concerts, there was a performance for children yesterday afternoon and this afternoon there is a lecture recital on Einstein and his love of the violin.

Further information from the festival website.

Recent Reviews:


The Sixteen at the Hatfield Chamber Music Festival. (23/09/2012)

Eugene Onegin, Grange Park Rising Stars at Cadogan Hall (20/09/2012)

The Magic Flute, English National Opera (13/09/2012)

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