Sunday 1 October 2023

The 1930s sextet: contrasting works from Dohnanyi and Poulenc at the heart of Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective and Orsino Winds collaborative concert

Orsino Winds
Orsino Winds (Nicholas Daniel, Alec Frank-Gemmill, Amy Harman, Adam Walker, Matthew Hunt)

Tailleferre, Milhaud, Poulenc, Walker, Dohnanyi; Ornsino Winds (Adam Walker, Nicholas Daniel, Matthew Hunt, Alec Frank-Gemmill, Amy Harman), Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective (Tom Poster, Elena Urioste, Braimah Kanneh-Mason, Tony Rymer); Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

Two contrasting sextets, both from the 1930s, at the heart of this richly engaging programme bringing strings, piano and wind together in unusual combinations

The concert on the evening of Friday 29 September 2023 at the Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival in the house's Marble Hall brought together players from Orsino Winds and Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective for music by Germaine Tailleferre, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, George Walker and Ernst von Dohnanyi. It was an evening that delighted in playing together in somewhat unusual combinations, Poulenc's sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and piano being balanced by Dohnanyi's sextet for clarinet, horn, strings and piano.

It was very much a concert of two halves. In the first, pianist Tom Poster (co-founder of the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective) performed with Adam Walker, flute, Nicholas Daniel, oboe, Matthew Hunt, clarinet, Alec Frank-Gemmill, horn and Amy Harman, bassoon, in music by members of Les Six. For the second half, four string players from Kaleidoscope including Elena Urioste and Braimah Kanneh-Mason, violins and Tony Rymer, cello, were joined by Poster, Frank-Gemmill and Hunt for Walker and Dohnanyi.

We began with Germaine Tailleferre's Sonate champetre for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano. The work might have been written in 1972 but its sound world linked clearly to the Paris of Les Six. The first movement was tuneful, perky and neo-classical, with the wind instruments to the fore and the piano deftly supporting. This continued in the slow movement, with the three wind lines intertwining over the piano, creating some lovely harmonic textures, whilst the final movement was a perky moto perpetuo with a fabulous climax.

Darius Milhaud wrote his Flute Sonatine in 1922 but it is a gentler and more melodic work than its date, amidst the height of Les Six, might suggest. The opening movement was gentle and graceful with an interesting major/minor dichotomy. The easy going triple time of the second movement was belied by the more edgy harmonies, whilst the  finale was an insouciant moto perpetuo with darker hints, yet at the end the whole thing evaporated.

Francis Poulenc knew horn player Dennis Brain and had played with him at the Wigmore Hall. Poulenc's 1957 Elegie for horn and piano was written in memory of Brain. It begins and ends with the horn playing a tone row, to devastating effect, spare lines contrasting with vibrant movement, then the horn line expanding lyrically before things became disturbing again and ending with the tone row. Both Frank-Gemmill and Poster were devastating in this piece, with Frank-Gemmill moving easily between full-hearted lyricism and something darker. 

You hardly wanted anything else after such a devastating account of Poulenc's Elegie and adding the composer's 1932/39 Sextet did make for a rather over-stuffed first half, but the performer sheer delight at playing together was palpable. The first movement was all perky and spiky, with plenty of fast, jazzy moments and vibrant, up-front playing yet there was bitter sweet romanticism too. Speeds were quite fast, making this a dazzling helter-skelter of emotions. The slow movement was all lyrical elegance, with a witty trio, whilst the finale was fast, vibrant and again very up-front. Here you could detect Poulenc's sly cabaret and jazz hints, but the end was down beat and surprising.

After the interval the four string players (apologies to the viola player whose name was uncredited in the programme) gave us George Walker's Lyric for Strings from his 1946 String Quartet, a lovely, intense piece with scope for singing lines from all four players.

Ernst von Dohnanyi wrote his Sextet (for piano, violin, viola, cello, clarinet, horn) in 1935, around the time Poulenc was working on his. But whilst Poulenc was echoing modernism, cabaret and jazz, Dohnanyi was looking back and this is definitely a work of late romanticism, though the finale sees Dohnanyi loosing the stays somewhat. The first movement began with strenuous cello and piano plus horn melody over the top, a real romantic texture which Dohnanyi developed into something remarkably orchestra with suggestions of Richard Strauss. The slow, intensity of the subsequent Intermezzo ended on a quiet note, followed by the Allegro con sentiment. This was definitely not a scherzo, it was lyric romantic though developing into something more lively and intense, contrasting with the brilliant chattering trio. The finale began with a sweeping melody which moved on to fast triple time music that was surprisingly perky, but the opening material returned and led to a wonderful full-blooded climax. The playing was full of vibrant textures, and the players sheer enjoyment of the music and of playing together in this relatively unusual instrumental contribution shone out.

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