Monday 16 May 2022

Art and Music at the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival

Helen Grime & members of Ensemble 360 - Music in the Round's Sheffield Chamber Music Festival at the Crucible Studio Theatre
Helen Grime & members of Ensemble 360 - Music in the Round's Sheffield Chamber Music Festival at the Crucible Studio Theatre

Art and Music
: Huw Watkins, Helen Grime, John Cage, Debussy, Bach, Chopin; Ensemble 360; Music in the Round's Sheffield Chamber Music Festival at the Crucible Studio Theatre
Reviewed 14 May 2022 (★★★★)

A fascinating evening that combined music and image, mixing some fine music making with an exercise in thinking about creativity and inspiration.

For the second evening (Saturday 14 May 2022) of Music in the Round's Sheffield Chamber Music Festival at the Crucible Studio Theatre, Ensemble 360 (Tim Horton, piano, Lucy Gould, violin, Claudia Ajmone-Marsan, violin, Sara Wolstenholme, violin, Rachel Roberts viola, Gemma Rosefield, cello) explored Art and Music, performing pieces directly inspired by works of art. We heard music by Huw Watkins, Helen Grime (the guest curator of this year's festival), John Cage, Debussy, Chopin and JS Bach. Images were projected onto a screen, so that not only did we see the works of art that had inspired the music, but there was some exploration of the reverse with art inspired by music.

We began with Huw Watkins' piano solo Resurrection of the Soldiers from Four Spencer Pieces. The solo was directly inspired by the Stanley Spencer mural that fills the East (liturgical) wall of Sandham Memorial Chapel. Throughout the piece there was the tolling of a bell in the piano which seemed to link directly to Ravel's Le gibet, and for all the complexity of Watkins' harmony, there was a beautiful clarity of structure. His use of fugue highlighted many layers of inference; the structure echoed that of the painting, but there was the link to Bach and to the sacred too.

Helen Grime's Aviary Sketches (after Joseph Cornell) consists of five movements for violin, viola and cello, each inspired by a box assemblage by the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972). Cornell created boxes on a variety of themes, but Grime chose those featuring birds and during each movement the relevant image that inspired the music appeared on the screen. 'Untitled (Habitat)' began with long slow lines from violin and cello with angry cross string motifs from viola. These latter too over, to create an intense texture akin perhaps to hard-edged twittering. 'Aviary (Parrot Music Box)' began with a pizzicato ground bass from the cello with vividly vigorous upper strings. Whilst there was something mechanical music box about it, Grime also introduced disturbances to the structure. 'Deserted Perch' (a box without a bird), featured a bleakly melancholy viola with vivid interruptions from the other two players, the music gradually unwinding. 'Forgotten Game' was almost a hocket with the three instruments throwing harmonics at each other. 'Toward the Blue Peninsula (after Emily Dickinson)' used lyric intersecting string lines which created an underlying sense of melancholy with the music developing in intensity and complexity.

It was intriguing seeing the images that inspired each piece. Grime's music is always finely detailed and beautifully crafted, sometimes in striking contrast to Cornell's art - a fascinating exercise in comparison.

Next came John Cage's Nocturne for violin and piano, a relatively early work pre-dating his experiments with chance. Whilst it played, a sequence of Gerhard Richter's mesmerising Cage images (created in 2006, with artist listening to Cage's music whilst he worked) were projected. Cage's building blocks in the piece were surprisingly impressionistic, but his placement of them was definitely more contemporary, creating something intriguing and seductive. There followed some real impressionism, two of Debussy's Preludes from Book Two, Feuilles Mortes and Les Fees song d'exquisses Danseuses. The first with some surprisingly dramatic elements, for all the impressionist wash, and the second fast and delicate. The illustrations were by Arthur Rackham, delightful in their own right and clearly inspired by the music but not what I conjured from the music.

The first half finished with Grime's Whistler Miniatures, three movements for violin, cello and piano inspired by Whistler pastels in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The music was less inspired by Whistler's rather exotic images than by his use of colour and texture. 'The Little Note in Yellow and Gold (Tranquillo)' used long string notes against piano filigree, and though the music developed in complexity there was always a sense of Grime's creative use of texture. 'Lapis Lazuli (Presto)' featured vivid scurrying with a complex structure of interweaving lines, beautifully wrought. 'The Violet Note (Lontano, molto flessibile)' combined a barely-there string tremolando with piano filigree, creating a surprising sense of melancholy absence.

After the interval, the focus turned to pianist Tim Horton who played a group of Chopin Nocturnes bookended by a pair of Preludes and Fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. First came Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E minor BWV900.. It was Paul Klee who coined the phrase 'taking a line for a walk', a term that seems apposite for many Bach fugues and it is no surprise to find that Klee was fascinated by Bach and his fugues. Whilst Horton gave us poise and elegant clarity in the Bach we saw Klee's Cooling in the Garden of the Torrid Zone.

Next followed a sequence of Chopin Nocturnes, Op.15 Nos.1 and 2, Op.48 No.1 and Op.55 No.2. The music elegant with a lovely singing line and some fine sturm und drang too, with Op.48 No.1 getting really dark indeed. We saw series of Whistler's Nocturnes, magical scenes that are rich in colour and wonderfully evocative, though not the images I conjure when listening to Chopin. The third Whistler Nocturne, The Falling Rocket, was the picture at the centre of the infamous court case when Whistler sued John Ruskin for libel after Ruskin accused the artist of 'flinging a pot of pain in the public's face' (there is, of course, a Sheffield connection with Ruskin as the city was the location of the first (and only) Ruskin Museum and the Millennium Galleries now has a display devoted to items from the Ruskin collection).

We finished with Bach, the Prelude and Fugue in F minor BWV880, a lyrical prelude followed by a perky dance of a fugues, accompanied by Paul Klee's Fugue in Red. The programme was a fascinating and engrossing idea, and we heard some striking music. Having the visual images certainly illuminated Helen Grime's music. Performances were superb throughout and Grime's highly detailed music seemed to benefit from the performers' love and care. I did feel that the balance of the two halves did not quite work and I longed for an instrumental contribution to bring the evening to a close. Following my comments in my review of Friday night's concert, I am pleased to say that the sequence of short pieces in part one flowed admirably with barely a pause for resetting the stage.

In the afternoon there had been a round table with Helen Grime, David Ainley (artist), Tim Horton (pianist), and Kirstie Hamilton (Director of Programmes, Museums Sheffield), moderated by Tom McKinney (Music in the Round's Programme Manager), talking about Art and Music with reference to the works in the programme. Illuminating for the background to the evening's music, there were flashes of real brilliance when the speakers highlighted direct and unexpected connections between painters and musicians.

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