Thursday 31 July 2014

Look no conductor - Nicky Spence and the 12 Ensemble

The 12 Ensemble at the Forge
The 12 Ensemble
Britten, Tchaikovsky, Schubert, Whitley; Nicky Spence, Alex Edmundson, the 12 Ensemble; The Forge, Camden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 30 2014
Star rating: 4.5

Wonderfully intent performances from this conductorless ensemble

The 12 Ensemble is a lively young string group, 12 players in a conductorless ensemble and I caught them last night (30 July 2014) at The Forge, Camden, where they are mid-way through a residency. At last night's concert they played Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings and they were joined by tenor Nicky Spence, and horn player Alex Edmundson for Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. The main concert was preceded by a free pre-platform at which Beatrice Philips (violinist with the 12 Ensemble) and pianist Noam Greenberg played Schubert's Sonatina in D major and Kate Whitley's Three pieces for violin and piano.

12 Ensemble were formed in 2012, and is directed by violinist Eloisa-Fleur Thom. As might be expected, there are 12 players in the ensemble. In 2015 they will be making their first disc, which will include Walton's Sonata for Strings, a work which they have just played at Walton's house on Ischia.

Beatrice Philips and Noam Greenberg opened with Schubert's Sonatina in D major which he wrote in 1816 (at the age of 19). It is a wonderfully melodic work, but by no means as simple as the work's title suggests (the title sonatina was given by a publisher hopeful to attract the amateur market). The opening Allegro molto was full of appealing lyricism in the violin contrasted with a neo-classical precision to Greenberg's piano accompaniment. The balance between piano and violin was ideal, and Philips played with a fine, slim and sweet tone. The Andante opened with Mozartian grace, with lovely shape and clarity to the playing of both, whilst the middle sections minor melody had a wonderful sinuous quality. The perky Allegro vivace was full of charm and wit. Throughout Philips and Greenberg made a fine duo, with Philips's sweet tone and fine line, supported by the classicism, clarity and finely detailed phrasing of Greenberg's playing.

Composer Kate Whitley played with Beatrice Philips at IMS Pussia Cove when they worked on Janacek's Violin Sonata. Whitley wanted to write something for Philips which echoed the tense and fragmentary nature of the Janacek and the result was her Three pieces for violin. A feature of the pieces is that the material gets repeated, no bad thing in a new work where the new music can go past at an alarming rate.

The opening movement, marked Very free - agitato started with Greenberg using his left hand inside the piano to damp the strings which produced a sound which very much matched the agitated pizzicato from Philips. The result was something nervous and neurotic, which suddenly evaporated into intense lyrical fragments, only for the whole to be repeated. The middle movement, Tenemarente was spare yet lyrical with a lovely singing violin line. There was something of the feel of Arvo Part in Whitley's writing here, but with unexpected piquancies in the sound world too. The material repeated, but was finally interrupted by intense, repeated chords. Finally, a violent moto perpetuo, again with Greenberg dampening the piano with his left hand at times. Whitley's three character pieces were indeed tense and fragmentary, but in Philips and Greenberg's intense and vivid performances, these fragments came together into a satisfying whole.

After an interval, whilst the stage was re-set and the piano removed, we started the concert proper. As the concert hall had become rather hot, the rear doors onto the bar were opened which brought in a lovely cool breeze, but also meant that the performers for the main concert were accompanied by discreet tinkling and rumbling from the bar, which seemed to bother them not a whit.

Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings is not commonly thought of as a chamber work but it was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in 1943, with Peter Pears and Dennis Brain accompanied by a chamber orchestra conducted by Walter Goehr. Here we had 12 strings and no conductor, and the results were enormously immediate and richly vivid. The whole piece had a clear sense of dramatic purpose, and the smaller forces and smaller concert hall lent a wonderful immediacy to the whole performance.

Hearing the horn played in such close proximity made the sound very present, but Alex Edmundson's playing was very finely controlled and the Prologue was certainly well worth hearing closely. The strings slipped in beautifully at the start of the Pastoral, later introducing a lovely covered hush to their tone. From the outset Nicky Spence showed that the words meant as much to him as the music. His diction was superb (we didn't have, and didn't need, printed sheets of the text), but more than that he was clearly giving the music a dramatically intense narrative. This was allied to a lovely, firm lyric line, resonant with surprising depth of tone to it. The Pastoral was vividly done, with a lovely interaction between Edmundson and Spence.

In Nocturne Spence's virile vocals were complemented by some vivid string playing and evocative horn calls. The performance was mesmerising, with Spence and the performers almost compelling attention; we couldn't not listen. Richly textured string playing was a feature of Elegy, with Edmundson's finely controlled but intense horn playing. This was vibrant and intent music making, with the sense that all were listening intently to Spence's gripping performance. The lovely epilogue saw Edmundson treating us to some highly evocative hand stopping.

The text of Dirge is traditional medieval text from Northern England, rather imaginatively Spence sang it with Scots pronunciation (he is a Scot after all) with Nighte rendered as Nicht which worked extremely well and gave an additional vibrancy to Britten's setting, he also gave us a lovely Scots rolled R in Purgatory which brought superb relish to his performance. Again this was a very intent performance, with a sense of all performers involved in the way Spence's gradual build in the piece. This was perhaps, one of the most gripping performances of the Britten that I have heard. The setting of Ben Jonson's Hymn to Diana saw Edmundson's lovely, lively horn complemented by Spence's perky and characterful singing. Here, and elsewhere, you were aware of the immense charm which Spence brings to a performance. The final vocal movement, Sonnet, was serious and intense with some moments of lyrical rapture. Then we had Edmundson's evocative off-stage Epilogue.

There were few moments in the work when you sensed the lack of a conductor, and these were more than made up for the seriously intent performance with the feeling that everyone was indeed listening and making their mark. Spence's account the vocal line is certainly one that I would want to hear again.

The group followed this with a performance of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. The opening Andante was richly textured and serious, with a nice clarity too it and not too much Romantic gloss. When we came to the Allegro there was a lovely feeling of flexibility and fluidity, with subtle use of rubato. Playing standing up, the players all seemed to sway to the music and made the music itself sway. There was a delightful lightness to the waltz but with intensity too; this was a performance which combined charm and edge. And there was a lovely sense of interplay between the parts. Perhaps in the Elegie there was one of those moments when the individual players were not quite unanimous, but each line really meant something and the result was very intense and concentrated. The group's sound has a lovely directness and clarity, partly because they don't overuse vibrato. The opening Andante of the final movement had a find transparent sound, and then in the Allegro we had a sense of tight crisp rhythm, with a strong sense of attack and marcato. The cellos made the most of their solo moments, and sang beautifully.

This was a very involving and delightful performance all round, and I certainly hope to encounter the group again.

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