Friday 27 September 2019

With the harp at its centre the opening concert of the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival was a rare treat

Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, opening concert 26 September 2019
Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, opening concert 26 September 2019
Ravel, Poulenc, Debussy, Messager, Fauré; Katya Apekisheva, Julian Bliss, Nicholas Daniel, Guy Johnston, Anneleen Lenaerts, Navarra Quartet, Charles Owen, Adam Walker; Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 September 2019 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
The rare treat of a programme of all-French chamber music, with works for harp paired with chamber music from the late 19th and 20th centuries in a sophisticated and finely performed programme.

The Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival this year, which runs until Sunday 29 September 2019, is centred around French chamber music. For the opening concert on Thursday 29 September 2019 in the Marble Hall of Hatfield House the programme had two works with harp as the centrepiece, Maurice Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet and Claude Debussy's Danse sacrée et danse profane for Harp and Quartet, plus Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor Op. 15, Francis Poulenc's Oboe Sonata and André Messager's Solo de Concours, played by a group of musicians who are all appearing at various concerts during the festival, Katya Apekisheva (piano), Julian Bliss (clarinet), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Guy Johnston (cello), Anneleen Lenaerts (harp), the Navarra Quartet (Magnus Johnston, Marije Johnston, Sascha Bota, Brian O'Kane), Charles Owen (piano) and Adam Walker (flute). Taking place in Hatfield House's Marble Hall, which remains pretty much as Robert Cecil built it in 1611, there was something rather luxurious about a concert which had the great Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I as a backdrop.

Both Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet and Debussy's Danse sacrée et danse profane for Harp and Quartet were written to show off the new developments in harp technology which enabled harpists to change key more easily. In 1904, Pleyel commissioned Debussy for a piece for their new type of harp, and then in 1905, Erard responded by commissioning Ravel to show of their new chromatic harp. Erard seem to have won the competition, as modern pedal harps are based on the new Erard model.

The concert opened with Anneleen Lenaerts, Adam Walker, Julian Bliss and the Navarra Quartet performing the Ravel which was beautifully evocative yet still felt classical. The players achieved a lovely transparent texture and real sense of give and take between them. And underlying everything you felt a sense of the dance. The balance between the instruments was well judged, and this certainly wasn't a performance which turned the work into a harp concerto.

Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen then performed Poulenc's Oboe Sonata, the composer's last major work. Daniel's unaccompanied opening phrase was rather eerie, then the two launched into Poulenc's bitter-sweet lyrical melancholy, with beautifully mellow tone from Daniel. The movement was full of quick changes of emotion, with darker moments, and the performers achieved a real sense of intimacy. The size and the acoustics of the Marble Hall make it ideal for this type of music. The faster second movement (unusually the sonata is arranged slow-fast-slow) was perky and wonderfully characterful with some terrific playing from Daniel and Owen who both created something nicely throw-away about the music. A more lyrical bitter-sweet middle section alternated passages of great transparency with moments of intense power. The slower final movement had long oboe lines over piano chords, rather melancholy and evocative, and en ending which seemed unresolved and harmonically adrift. In his spoken introduction to the piece Daniel suggested that in the movement Poulenc pre-figures his own death, and in fact the composer never heard the full sonata.

The first half ended with Debussy's Danse sacrée et danse profane (meaning sacred and secular, rather than sacred and profane in the modern sense). It was played by Anneleen Lenaerts and the Navarra Quartet who achieved a lovely contrast between the strong string lines and the evocative harp chords, and sometimes the transparent textures were almost otherworldly. Textures were often quite spare, with the piece being very harp focussed. In both this and the Ravel, the composers were putting the new chromatic abilities of the harps to full use. The final dance had lovely textures and a delightful, throw-away ending.

After the interval Julian Bliss and Katya Apekisheva played André Messager's Solo de Concours, another showpiece this time designed to challenge the young clarinet players at the Paris Conservatoire. It was melodic and delightful, yet full of ridiculously tricky moments for the clarinet, and Bliss made them seem effortless yet not meaningless. It ended with what could only be described as a crazy fast section, very show-off-y and great fun.

We ended with something far more serious in tone, Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 written in 1876-76, performed by Charles Owen, Magnus Johnston and Sascha Bota (from the Navarra Quartet) and Guy Johnston (artistic director of the festival and, in fact, Magnus' brother). Fauré disliked virtuosity in piano playing and his piano chamber music is far more balanced between piano and strings than that of some 19th century composers where the piano dominates. In all the movements Fauré seemed to have a fondness for unison or quasi-unison dialogues in the strings combined with rippling piano textures. Yet there was nothing conventional about the result as Fauré flexibly moulded the music in non-obvious ways. In the opening movement the strings demonstrated their lovely passionate, vibrant tones, with all concerned creating a fluidly flexible flow to the music, albeit with powerful eruptions. The second movement opened with pizzicato in the strings and a perky piano, played with a light touch but strong in character and a serious thread running underneath. The rather wry middle section seemed easy going but with a lovely sense of musical detail. The third movement seemed quite simple, yet created an expressively complex effect as the music ebbed and flowed between instruments yet combined into a single expressive texture. The final movement was light, almost scherzo-like, again with a fine sense of detail in the playing.

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