Friday 30 September 2022

From Scandinavia to Buenos Aires by way of Paris and Vienna: the Hatfield House Chamber Music festival opens with a showcase for its varied artists

Queen Elizabeth I presides over an empty stage at Hatfield House awaiting the performers
Queen Elizabeth I presides over an empty stage in Hatfield House's Marble Hall awaiting the performers

Schubert, Poulenc, traditional, Robin Holloway, Dvorak, Jessie Montgomery, JP Jofre; Adam Walker, Julian Bliss. JP Jofre, Guy Johnston, Lodestar Trio, Mishka Rushdie Momen, Charles Owen; Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival at Hatfield House
Reviewed 29 September 2022 (★★★★)

A bandoneon and two nyckelharpas alongside classical music from Schubert to Poulenc to a Robin Holloway premiere and more besides in a wonderfully eclectic start to the festival

There is an eclectic, international genre-crossing feel to this year's Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival where the festival artists include the Lodestar Trio (a collaboration between violinist Max Baillie and the Scandinavian folk duo Erik Rydvall and Olav Mjelva), veena player Nirmala Rjasekar, and Argentinian composer and bandoneon player JP (Juan Pablo) Jofre.

The festival launched on Thursday 29 September 2022 with a pair of concerts in the Marble Hall at Hatfield House. The setting has changed slightly this year, the famous Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which usually sits right behind the performers, is on its travels having been lent to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and its place taken by one of the house's other portraits of the queen.

The early evening concert on Thursday featured Jessica Duchen (narrator) and Mishka Rushdie Momen (piano) in Immortal Beloved based on Duchen's book about Beethoven. This was followed by the festival's first evening concert, an eclectic programme which took advantage of the nature of the festival with its resident artists to give us a wide ranging and varied programme that somehow worked. 

We began with Schubert's Quartettsatz in C minor played by a quartet from the United Strings of Europe led by Julian Azkoul, followed by Poulenc's Clarinet Sonata with Julian Bliss (clarinet) and Charles Owen (piano), and the first half ended with a short set from the Lodestar Trio. The second half began with the world premiere of Robin Holloway's Flute Quartet with Adam Walker (flute) and the United Strings of Europe, followed by Dvorak's Waldesruhe, Op.68 No. 5 with Guy Johnston (cello) and Mishka Rushdie Momen (piano), then United Strings of Europe in Jessie Montgomery's Strum. The evening ended with the UK premiere of JP Jofre's Double Concerto for clarinet and bandoneon, string quintet and piano, played by Julian Bliss, JP Jofre, United Strings of Europe and Richard Gowers (piano).

The four players from United Strings of Europe (Julian Azkoul, Helena Buckle, Christine Anderson, Kirsten Jenson) gave us a lyrical and intimate account of Schubert's Quartettsatz (the first movement of an incomplete quartet from 1820). The first violin line was not too spotlit and this was very much an exploration of quartet textures. There were strong, dramatic moments but this performance was perhaps not as dark or as driven as some, an engaging way to begin the concert.

Poulenc's Clarinet Sonata (written in 1962, one of his last works) plunges straight in and so did Julian Bliss and Charles Owen, no feeling of easing into the work. Playing from memory, Bliss gave us a sense of inhabiting this piece, with all its changeable moments and the way the music can turn on a pin, juxtaposing the serious, the witty and the downright cheeky. And for all Poulenc's bad-boy antics in this, Bliss really brought out the underlying sense of melancholy in the whole work, even the perkier moments. There was quite a depth to the sound world, with Owen partnering Bliss superbly. The interior and intense second movement, with its haunting ending, was followed by the perky finale, full of wit and character, yet a serious wit. 

The first half ended with the Lodestar Trio, where Max Baillie (violin) joined Olav Mjelva (violins) and Erik Rydvall (nyckelharpas) for a set which consisted of two pairs of pieces, in each case a Scandinavian folk-inspired tune leading into the group's re-interpretation of something classical. Rydvall played two different nyckhelharpas, these are keyed string instruments and very much the Swedish national instrument; though something like a fiddle, they are perhaps closer to the hurdy-gurdy. The three played from memory and were consistently imaginative and engaging. We hardly knew what we were listening too (and perhaps the instruments being used could have done with some introducing). But it didn't matter, the sound-world here was wonderfully infectious with the three players creating wonderfully engaging textures. Folk melodies merged into Bach and Merula, but everything came out re-invented. The group will be playing a longer set at the festival on Saturday.

The second half opened with Robin Holloway's Flute Quartet, written for flautist Adam Walker who premiered it with members of United Strings of Europe. A single movement work, the music was changeable and multi-sectional, restless almost. We began with a solo flute, eventually joined by viola, in a sound world that was not far from Debussy before the music got more intense and developed impetus. Always fluid, this was the flute's day with the strings responding to Walker's mesmerising playing, though Holloway paces the work well and Walker had rest moments when the three string players (Julian Azkoul, Chrstine Anderson, Kirsten Jenson) played strongly characterised moments. The mood varied between the serious and the less so, with a perky melody returning a couple of times and a rather jazzy fugato. This was music that never stayed still and at the end Holloway had one more trick, a serious and intense moment for strings was followed by a perkily witty, throw away flute solo finishing almost in mid-air.

Guy Johnston and Mishka Rushdie Momen's account of Dvorak's Waldesruhe (Silent Woods, the composer's own transcription of a work for piano four-hands from 1883) was a glorious piece of lyric melancholy, showcasing Johnston's richly warm cello tone. In the context of a rather long and varied second half, however, you did somehow wonder quite why it was there, particularly as the stage had to be reset both before and afterwards; indeed, if this programme had a fault, it was perhaps in being too generous, fitting too much in and there was a feeling by the end that we had seen the stage being re-set (however deftly and swiftly) once too often.

The United Strings of Europe brought one of their showpieces, Strum a 2021 work by American composer Jessie Montgomery, who is currently composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The piece uses pizzicato as the essential driving rhythm of the work, beginning with an all-plucked texture and gradually adding bowed elements, but the pizzicato never disappeared entirely, despite a variety of speeds and textures. If folk elements were to the fore in the Lodestar Trio's pieces, then here the feeling was at one remove, but definitely there, the sense of American fiddling behind the music.

The evening ended with JP Jofre's Double Concerto which was commissioned by clarinettist Seeunghee Lee and premiered by her and Jofre with the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra in June this year.  Here, Jofre and Julian Bliss were joined by a quintet from United Strings of Europe and pianist Richard Gowers.

In three movements, the work began with a movement that Jofre called Vals irreal (Unreal waltz), but the sense here was not so much one of dance as of the two soloists riffing wonderfully over strong string textures. Jofre really played with the differences between the three groups, bandoneon, clarinet and strings, though the piano seemed to remain in a reticently supportive role throughout. Playing on these contrasts, the first movement worked up a wonderful head of steam. In style, Jofre's music is eclectic, mid-Century classical string writing combining with jazz and Argentinian tango influences in an engaging way. The slow movement, La noche (The night) began with a wonderful clarinet meditation over the strings, this was then taken up by the bandoneon with Bliss' clarinet riffing over this. As the music gained in intensity it developed in drama too, leaving the meditative night behind for something more disturbing. The finale, Aboriginal was fast vivid and rhythmic, the driving rhythms interrupted occasionally for more thoughtful moments, but by the end we were back to the fast vividness of the opening. 

Throughout Bliss played with a deft virtuosity which matched Jofre's engagement with his own music, and the players of United Strings of Europe brought far more than just sympathetic support to their role, really engaging with the non-traditional elements in the music.

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