Saturday 14 May 2022

Vividly present playing & discreet virtuosity from Ensemble 360 at the launch of Music in the Round's 2022 Sheffield Chamber Music Festival

Dvorak: Piano Quintet - Ensemble 360 - Music in the Round's Sheffield Chamber Music Festival at Crucible Studio Theatre
Dvorak: Piano Quintet - Ensemble 360 - Music in the Round's Sheffield Chamber Music Festival at Crucible Studio Theatre

Festival Launch
 - Janacek, Martinu, Anna Meredith, Dvorak; Ensemble 360; Music in the Round's Sheffield Chamber Music Festival at Crucible Studio Theatre
Reviewed 13 May 2022 (★★★★½)

Sheffield Chamber Music Festival launches with a largely Czech programme, showcasing the brilliant playing of Ensemble 360 in a series of unusual combinations with some vivid and very present playing

Music in the Round's Sheffield Chamber Music Festival (curated this year by composer Helen Grime) which takes place in the Crucible Studio Theatre, launched last night, Friday 13 May 2022, with a programme of largely Czech chamber music performed by members of Ensemble 360, the festival resident ensemble. So, we heard Janacek's Concertino, Martinu's Three Madrigals and Dvorak's Piano Quintet in A, Op.81, alongside Anna Meredith's Tripotage Miniatures, performed by Claire Wickes (flute), Rachael Clegg (oboe), Peter Sparks (clarinet), Sarah Burnett (bassoon), Naomi Atherton (horn), Tim Horton (piano), Kathy Gowers (violin), Claudia Ajmone-Marsan (violin), Rachel Roberts (viola), Gemma Rosefield (cello) and Daniel Storer (double bass).

Central to the festival's ethos is the space, the Crucible Studio Theatre, this is theatre in the round with the audience close to the performers on all four sides (sometimes alarmingly close). There is no front, the music is all around you and many audience members are close enough to touch the performers. This has the potential for being distracting, but last nights near capacity audience was more than attentive, no-one seemed to barely breathe such was the engagement with the music.

We began with Janacek's Concertino, written in 1925 for piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn and double bass. Janacek started the work after hearing pianist Jan Herman performing his Diary of one who disappeared in 1924. There seems to be some sort of narrative, though Janacek seems to have altered his views, yet there is no doubt it arises out of the natural world. Another influence was evidently Janacek's early chamber work, Mladi. One of the distinctive features of the work is that different movements use different combinations of instruments. So, first we heard piano and horn in dialogue, the one strong the other gentle, creating a real sense of unspoken narrative, particularly with Janacek's fondness for low farty notes on the horn. But everything turned on a pin, with moments and drama and romance. Next, it was piano and E flat clarinet, fast and energetic with folk hints and positively orgasmic at the end. When all the instruments joined, the movement might be inspired by screech owls and other night creatures, but this was no comforting night scene, and the players relished Janacek's imaginative use of timbre and texture. Finally, a movement where the atmospheric piano was commented upon by the instruments, the music developing into a fast and vivid (imaginary?) narrative.

Always intriguing and inventive, Janacek delights in unusual combinations of timbre in this witty account of the music with brilliant playing that really showed it off.

Then onto another unusual ensemble, just violin and viola. Martinu's Three Madrigals might have been inspired by Mozart's duos for the same instruments, but the name hints at other influences too. Written in 1947, Martinu delights in the intricate intersections of the two brilliantly virtuosic instrumental lines. The first movement plunged straight in with vivid and very present playing. The delicate second movement, with muted instruments, was quietly virtuosic with some remarkably intricate writing. We had had folk hints in the first movement, and the third went full folk-dance, brilliant writing and a bit of madness with some terrific playing.

We ended part one with Anna Meredith's enigmatic but delightful Tripotage Miniatures, for clarinet, flute, oboe, horn, viola, and double bass, each movement has a gnomic name, 'Lanolin', '40 Watt', 'Moth', 'Buzzart, 'Scrying' and 'Majolica', and she uses a variety of combinations so the full ensemble only plays in the last movement. Each movement seemed to set up a particular interplay of timbre, texture and motif, and then introduced a disruptive element. 'Lanolin' for horn and clarinet, used rhythmic repetition with the motifs not quite in synch between the instruments to toe-tapping catchy effect. As the music got faster and faster we almost reached Janacek-like orgasm. '40 Watt' was for piccolo and double bass, playing high high and pizzicato, so that the haunting bass was paired with high piccolo lines, to rather oriental effect. 'Moth' was for alto flute, oboe and horn, carefully placed oboe and horn notes under a held flute trill, almost a palimpset, the music left behind after something has been removed. Pregnant cor anglais and throbbing violin joined for 'Buzzard', almost a lullaby that got out of control. 'Scrying' was for quiet clarinet trills, double bass in rather elephantine mode and violin trills, this developed with the violin emulating the bass and then evaporated. 'Majolica' featured all the instruments in what became a moto perpetuo, fast and vivid.

Meredith shows a remarkable ear for different sound worlds in these movements, sometimes unlikely but always intriguing and entrancing.  

After the interval, we heard a single work, Antonin Dvorak's Piano Quinet in A, Op. 81. Dvorak wrote this in 1888, having started off by revising an early Piano Quintet but then deciding to write a new one. Whilst the form might be inspired by Schumann's Piano Quintet but Dvorak melds the Romantic structure with Czech folk-music elements and though he never uses folk melodies, many of his own have a distinctively Czech cast.

We began almost in the middle as the cello launched a wonderfully soulful melody over the piano, before all the instruments joined in for a fast, vivid section. Throughout, the movement was about this alternation, between the soulful and the fast, vivid. The players found a yearning melancholy in the soulful moments and the Czech folk hints were strong throughout, with some fine full-blooded moments. This was very much not a piano concerto, as pianist Tim Horton proved a very collegial player, he knew when to shine and when to support in the background. The second movement was a Dumka, a Czech dance form based around alternation, and Dvorak was rather fond of using it (his Dumky Trio of three years later used the form in each movement!) Here we returned to lyric melancholy, but with fast and vivid interludes which showcased Dvorak's complex, layered writing that created some finely intricate textures. The lovely third movement featured perky crispness alongside lyrical delight, and a delicate trio. At its opening, the final movement felt almost trivial - fast, tight, intense and busy, yet it was full of invention and the players made it irrepressible.  Throughout the piece, the players formed a wonderfully sympathetic ensemble, rather than five individuals, and there was a lovely feel for the underlying Czech influences in melody and rhythm.

This sort of concert, with its wide variety of different instrumental line-ups and sometimes rather short piece can prove something of a logistical challenge, and the festival did not quite get this right which meant that the first half was somewhat more laborious than it could have been. But the music making was of superlative quality, with a very present sense of engagement throughout and some vividly brilliant virtuosity. I will be back at the festival tonight for the Art and Music concert.

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