sat 13/07/2024

Southrepps Sinfonia and Soloists, Southrepps Festival | reviews, news & interviews

Southrepps Sinfonia and Soloists, Southrepps Festival

Southrepps Sinfonia and Soloists, Southrepps Festival

Some of the world's best young string players gather in a Norfolk village

Ben Johnson conducting the Southrepps Sinfonia in St James's ChurchStills from filming by Graham Johnston, LadderMAN SDA

It only takes one outstanding musician with links to an out-of-the-way place to gather his or her top-notch friends and give a mini-festival of international quality. They’re springing up all over the UK: guiding lights that come to mind are violinist Anthony Marwood in Peasmarsh and tenor Toby Spence at Wardsbrook Farm.

Now another leading British tenor, Ben Johnson, has set up a Young Artists' Programme and a band of the brightest and best young string players in the village of Southrepps, less than two miles from the beautiful North Norfolk coast. What I heard in two of the seven concerts was string playing that you’d be fortunate to encounter anywhere in the world.

Word of mouth connects players of equal calibre. Indeed, the way I heard about it shows how it works. I first came across Ben Baker, New Zealand-born violinist who’s just released his first CD, leading a superlative Mendelssohn Octet at the East Neuk Festival. Our next meeting was at Paavo Järvi’s Pärnu Festival, where Baker was playing in the Festival Orchestra and where his Estonian girlfriend Marike Krupp was leading the Academy Orchestra (she was also in the Southrepps Sinfonia). Baker gave an incandescent performance in Pärnu of Korngold’s piano-quartet Suite with, among others, his old Yehudi Menuhin School friend, the cellist and conductor Jonathan Bloxham. There they told me about their next engagement at Southrepps. A Schubert String Quintet with these two bracketing three other young players was bound to be something extraordinary. And it was.

Ben Baker at the Southrepps FestivalNo less so was the 18-piece string orchestra led by Baker (pictured right on Sunday morning) and conducted with focus by Ben Johnson the previous evening. In the helpfully unreverberant acoustic of high-towered St James’s Church, pleasingly bare within despite the (excellent) Victorian restoration of the nave and with light flooding through the leaded Decorated-era windows, this team offered every gradation of sound from ghost-whispers to blazing unisons and multi-part splendours underpinned by the resonance of the two double-basses which you could feel behind your back in the wooden bench supports.

It was a carefully chosen programme of English string music with an interloper in the form of Australian-born Percy Grainger’s Handel in the Strand. That brought in the local connection, pianist Tom Primrose, to take the lead and rattle along with the rest. The pairing could have given us a real centre of gravity, or rather of light, in the form of Britten’s short but elemental Young Apollo – next year, perhaps, with Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète to complement – but there was still sufficient intensity in the young(ish) Britten’s Prelude and Fugue, darting elaborations versus a heart of darkness, and plenty of fire to the reworking of childhood inspirations in the Simple Symphony (“Playful Pizzicato", teasingly done, was bound to be the movement one came out humming).

Schubert Quintet in SouthreppsWarlock’s Capriol Suite made a clean, light opener, and it was surprising to hear a radiance in the opening "Vivace" of Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, though that composer’s characteristic retreat into a paler cast of mind ended in a thoughtful but austere slow movement. The real revelation, for me at any rate, was Holst’s St Paul’s Suite, or rather its utterly individual inner movements. "Ostinato" is a true original, beautifully tapered here, and the "Intermezzo" is much more than that, with Baker soaring with typically cultured tone towards an orientally inflected cry from the collective violins’ heart: a reminder that The Planets, having struck afresh at last Monday’s Prom, wasn’t Holst’s only masterpiece. Johnson, having negotatiated some tricky tempo changes throughout with seeming effortlessness, chose an encore to leave us all dewy-eyed, Harold Darke’s Fantasia on Brother James’s Air – the first tune Johnson had been compelled to sing as a treble – with the burgeoning climax the sign of a minor master.

At 11am the next morning, with the sun streaming through the huge windows, Baker and Bloxham assembled with three other string players – violinist Ricky Gore, viola player Sarah Niblack and cellist Arthur Boutillier (pictured above) – to head for the deep and emotional waters of the Schubert Quintet. The seriousness with which they prepared for the start, silent for an opening chord which came out of nowhere, was a sign of things to come. Maybe one shouldn’t wonder at the maturity of a twentysomething group in the most profound challenge, perhaps, of the chamber repertoire; after all Schubert was still only 31, albeit harrowed by the prospect of imminent death, when he wrote the work.

Schubert Quintet at SouthreppsEven shorn of a first-movement exposition repeat the performance clocked in at just over an hour, though who was counting when the players gave so much space to the wistful lyricism of the first movement, charted every sensitive ache – pizzicato cello support included – and every painful, miraculous modulation in the greatest of all slow movements? You need to feel that Schubert goes beyond the human to hover on the brink of the infinite  – and we did, given playing once again of supreme culture (pictured above, Bloxham, Niblack and Boutillier).

The drone bass lines of the scherzo’s outer portions again shook the church benches; the silences between deathly low chords at its heart reminded us that Schubert hasn’t finished with the profundities in his Adagio; and in the finale’s dance of death there was consolation and some astonishing gypsy ricocheting from Baker, who runs the gamut with a master’s touch. Worthy of a standing ovation from the impressively attentive audience? Of course – and when an interpretation plumbs those kind of depths, you just have to let it resonate and take note not to make the mistake of hearing another live performance of Schubert's masterpiece for quite some time.

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