Sunday 3 October 2021

A day at the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary

Hatfield House
Hatfield House

Shostakovich, Stephen Johnson, Dvorak, Poulenc, Caplet, Brett Dean, Mendelssohn; Carducci Quartet, Orsino Ensemble, Tom Poster, Brett Dean, Guy Johnston, Magnus Johnston; Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 October 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
From rare French 20th century music to dazzling Brett Dean and ending with the superb communal energy of Mendelssohn's Octet, Hatfield House Chamber Music celebrating its 10th birthday

This year, the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, artistic director Guy Johnston, celebrates its 10th anniversary with an action packed four days of concerts, talks and more in and around Hatfield House. I went along yesterday, Friday 1 October 2021, to catch a pair of concerts in the Marble Hall of Hatfield House. First, for the early evening, the Carducci Quartet in Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 7 in F sharp minor, Stephen Johnson's Angel's Arc (with clarinettist Matthew Hunt) and Dvorak's String Quartet in F, Op.96 'American'. Then in the evening a group of the festival's resident musician's gathered, the Orsino Ensemble, the Carducci Quartet, Magnus Johnston and Mio Takahashi (violin), Brett Dean (viola), Guy Johnson (cello) and Tom Poster (piano) in Poulenc's Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano, FP 43, André Caplet's Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op. 8, Brett Dean's Demons for solo flute (with Adam Walker), and Mendelssohn's String Octet in E flat, Op. 20.

Contemporary music is playing a big role in this year's festival, not only are there two festival commissions to celebrate the 10th anniversary (a quartet from Joseph Phibbs and a cello suite from Matthew Kaner) but virtually every concert has a contemporary work in it. Also, composer Brett Dean is resident at the festival this year, with performances of his works as well as playing the viola in a number of concerts, so I caught the clarinet quintet from Stephen Johnson (who gives the pre-concert talks at the festival) and a solo flute work from Brett Dean.

We began with the Carducci Quartet (Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming, Eoin Schmidt-Martin, Emma Denton) in Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 7 which the composer wrote in 1960 in memory of his late wife, Nina. It is his shortest quartet, in three movements which play without a break, the tri-partite nature of the final movement can give the impression that the work is in fact one long multi-sectional piece.

There was initially almost playful edge to the music with real point to the rhythms though veering into Shostakovich's disturbing unease as he worked the material. There was a haunted feeling too, though the players rhythms always brought a point to the music. The second movement's lovely violin duet was supported by transparent textures from the others; there was haunted melancholy amidst the beauty, ending with lovely veiled tone. The third movement interrupts the end of the previous movement, furious, intense and violent. At first we had stunning finger-work and incredible momentum, though the music gradually unwinds and the haunted feeling returned with an almost-waltz, where the rhythm never quite settled.

Stephen Johnson's  Angel's Arc for clarinet and string quartet was written as a tribute to an area of the Pennine moors which he explored during his teenage years, though there are also music quotations which reference people who were important to him at that period. The Carducci Quartet were joined by clarinettist, Matthew Hunt (from the Orsini Ensemble).  The worked opened with lovely rhapsodic moments for the clarinet over quietly sustained strings. There were moments of dialogue, but the clarinet was very much to the fore and I kept thinking of Finzi's writing for clarinet. The middle section was a sort of furiously intense scherzo, with fast movements between different emotions yet still with time for the clarinet to meander, despite some furious string playing. The world of the opening section returned, with a sense of unwinding. Despite moments of loveliness and some thoughtful clarinet playing, Johnson also created a feeling of unease in the music resulting in a strikingly complex piece.

The concert ended with Dvorak's American Quartet, written during his American sojourn in an astoundingly short time when he was on holiday at a Czech community in Idaho. The result is a work which is imbued with Czech melodies and rhythms, yet also carries hints of the American musics that Dvorak heard around him. A strong viola line led to playing full of character, a performance with a lovely sense of engagement and forward motion, full of lovely rhythmic details. The playing combined strength with character and playfulness, full of well articulated rhythms (something that characterised the quartet's playing throughout the work). For all the profound beauty of the melody in the slow movement, the lovely multi-layered accompaniment was presented with great character and incident. The third movement was all rhythmic joy and vivid character, with a final movement which though fast, had a vivid edge to it thanks to the rhythmic intensity, yet with some lovely interludes, but an unstoppable momentum at the end.

The evening concert began with pianist Tom Poster and members of the Orsini Ensemble in a pair of French works for wind players and piano. First Poulenc's Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano from Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Amy Harman (bassoon) and Tom Poster (piano). The opening contrasted the sober piano chords with wind playing which was by turns perky and plaintive. There was plenty of wit and sparkle, yet moments of pure bliss in the lyrical lines. The slow movement had another long-breathed line with the two wind players easily passing the music between them, and despite growing intensity Daniel produce some glorious lyrical lines. The finale was a bouncing witty delight, very pointed but full of enjoyment.

André Caplet won the Prix de Rome in 1901 (beating Maurice Ravel) and became a friend of Claude Debussy, in fact Caplet's best-known works are his orchestrations of Debussy. His Quintet for piano and winds was written in 1898 when he was just 20. It was performed by Adam Walker (flute), Nicholas Daniel (oboe),  Matthew Hunt (clarinet), Amy Harman (bassoon) and Tom Poster (piano). In four movements, the music had quite a conservative feel to the harmony but with a neo-classical feel to it. For the opening, the flowing wind parts were punctuated by little rhythmic pokes from the piano. There was a sense of endless flowing onwards as the four wind players interleaved their lines over the piano. Throughout the quintet, Caplet seemed intent on writing for the four wind players as an ensemble, usually in dialogue and contrast with the piano. For the slow movement, there were sighing wind phrases over an intense piano line, often creating a rather soulful feel. The perky wind writing in the third movement was heard in dialogue with the piano, and there was a contrasting but equally playful trio. The finale featured shimmering piano writing with strong wind melodies over, the music developed in intensity and at one point Caplet switched roles, with the wind shimmering over the piano. Finally the music slowed, with moments of real romanticism, before the opening returned with a full blooded end.

The work was clearly well written for the wind players who seemed to have a wonderfully enjoyable time performing it. Always engaging, it was a fascinating piece which you wondered why it was not better known though there were moments when I felt that Caplet was a bit too expansive and some trimming and concision might have been in order.

After the interval, flute player Adam Walker returned with Brett Dean's 2004 work for solo flute, Demons. Dean described it as a 'kind of rondo', and indeed the furious, rather intense material from the opening did return repeatedly with quieter moments in between. Dean's writing took full advantage of modern playing techniques, and Walker's performance was completely dazzling. It was fascinating how in all the furious material, Dean seemed to hang the elaborations and extreme moments from a constant high pitch which provided a sort of continuity for the ear. The slower moments were sparer, more traditional with just a single angular line. We ended in quieter fashion, as if the energy had been sapped out of the music, yet here there were some spectacular phonics as Walker turned his back on us and walked away. Completely mesmerising and dazzling.

We ended with the members of the Carducci Quartet being joined by Magnus Johnston, Mio Takahashi, Brett Dean and Guy Johnston for Mendelssohn's Octet. Written when he was just 16 it is one of his best-known pieces of chamber music and still dazzles for the superbly confident handling of the eight players with textures which move between the orchestral and the intimate. The eight players were clearly having great fun performing together and the whole work thus developed a real sense of élan and of occasion.

The opening movement was noticeable for the impulsive, onward momentum combined with a warm, mellow sound. The constant attention to detail and excitement pressing forward were not overwhelmed too full and romantic a sound, this was richly characterful. The slow movement was finely mellow and graceful, with delicate textures and powerful moments. The scherzo featured fairies that bite, there was an edge to the rhythms in this delicate work which made it particularly vivid. Finally, all was vivid, vigorous excitement and clear sense of enjoyment, with an unstoppable energy to the end.

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