thu 30/11/2023

theartsdesk at the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival - romps and meditations at the highest level | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival - romps and meditations at the highest level

theartsdesk at the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival - romps and meditations at the highest level

Pianist Kathryn Stott curates a meeting of Yorkshire's top team with special guests

The ten players of Ensemble 360 acknowledge an ecstatic audience

Any chamber music festival that kicks off with Czech genius Martinů's Parisian jeu d'esprit ballet-sextet La revue de cuisine and ends its first concert with Saint-Saëns's glory of a Septet for trumpet, piano and strings is likely to be a winner.

This one was. It transpires that this year's curator Kathryn Stott – Steven Isserlis will follow in 2024 – is not only a remarkable pianist but also an inspired programmer, bringing to the 10 players of Ensemble 360, core of the fabulously enterprising Music in the Round, an unfamiliar repertoire and special guests with whom they made sparks fly.

I only caught the first of the guests, apart from Stott herself as pianist: Tine Thing Helseth, who can make the trumpet sing like no-one else I’ve heard. Her real moment in the sun during that first concert was in transcriptions of three Weill songs; the “Tango Habanera” “Youkali” was sheer cool perfection (it was originally written as an instrumental interlude, so to give it to trumpet and piano makes good sense). She’s still coming back to full strength after a long illness, so there were no extended fireworks, not even in the Martinů and Saint-Saëns where the trumpet is very much part of the ensemble.Rehearsal for La revue de cuisineHere our pianists shone, thanks to the fascination of their roles. Tim Horton, Ensemble 360 member and another of those underrated artists as good as most you find in the spotlight, set us up for the waywardness of Martinů’s tale about a saucepan in love with its lid, even coming on with (aptly) a Le Creuset ensemble to tell us a bit about the plot before establishing a very precise touch and a stomach-flip-inducing descent which marks out the Moravian master’s total originality (the players in rehearsal pictured above). And Stott effortlessly despatched the virtuoso flourishes which Saint-Saëns, experienced in five concertos for the instrument and no mean pianist himself, lets fly from the ensemble. Both these little masterpieces are proof that with an individual sense of melody and true musical fun the lighter end of the musical scale has claim to our full attention. Stott and Horton also lilted with perfectly consonant rubato at one piano in two of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances.

It's healthy to be able to say I’d never heard any of the six works on the opening programme live, not in the forms given, at any rate: another real winner was Falla’s sextet version, related to El amor brujo in its original chamber version as a “gitaneria” or danced Roma entertainment, of the meltingly lovely Pantomime and the deservedly famous Ritual Fire Dance. I’d just been reading how Poulenc placed Falla – also deservedly, I think – among the more obviously great names of his time; of the younger French generation of composers, he cited Messiaen and Jean Françaix. The latter hasn’t stood the test of time so well, and his Dixtuor for string and wind quintets is most original in its quirky humour, but it was so good to see each of the Ensemble 360 players shining there. Izzy Gizmo concertNot surprisingly, a packed house in the smallest of the three Crucible theatres, the Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse, went crazy. I suggested to various folk at the generous reception afterwards (all attendees welcome for a glass of wine) that 45 minutes’ worth of it would play well to children, and some of it must have turned up in the morning event of the last Saturday, “Music for Curious Young Minds”. I felt I had to catch a festival fixture on the first Saturday morning, the 10 players marshalled with huge energy and total lack of fake jollity or condescension by Polly Ives in the main Crucible Theatre – oh, that rainbow lighting! – for Paul Rissmann’s original, beautifully crafted score accompanying Izzy Gizmo, best-selling children’s book by Pip Jones and Sara Ogilvie (pictured above). The kids in my row were well schooled in all the instruments and sang/responded with gusto. They even got the finale of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, sans xylophone, as a mood-setter before Ives tackled the spreschstimme narrative of the girl inventor's vicissitudes. Pure delight: if you’re in the Aldeburgh area this summer and have any 3-7 year olds (and perhaps even if you don’t and want to feel jolly), get along to Snape Maltings on 20 August.  

Saturday evening’s concert steered us from more high spirits to night and mortality. Who knew that the great Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, who died far too young at the age of 33, was not only a composer in his own right but also arranged six of Domenico Scarlatti’s quirky short sonatas for wind quintet? This gave us such a good opportunity to hear the true individuality of flautist (and LPO principal) Juliet Bausor, oboist Rachel Clegg, clarinettist Robert Plane, bassoonist Emily Hultmark and horn-player Naomi Atherton. Tine Thing Helseth sang her farewell to the festival with pure bel canto in five Puccini songs (who knew, too, that “Sole e amore” is the source of the Act 3 Quartet in La bohème?).Rachel Roberts and Tim HortonStott’s carefully-planned turning point came in Beethoven’s C sharp minor Sonata, which Horton told us wasn’t really the “Moonlight” at all before launching into a masterly performance with a startlingly fast (it is Presto agitato, after all) but still perfectly articulated finale. The reason for its placement was that Shostakovich quotes or adapts fragments from the famous first movement in the last music he ever composed, the Viola Sonata of 1975. Ensemble 360’s superb viola player, Rachel Roberts, gave a true collaboration with Horton which went deep and meditative, as it must, in the final Adagio (Roberts and Horton pictured above). This is music which needs silence afterwards; I can’t blame the enthusiastic audience for standing and cheering, but it felt alien.

The valley of the shadow of death continued on Sunday evening in the octagonal round of St Martin’s Church, Stoney Middleton – in an actual valley in the Peak District – with an even more consistently elegiac programme. Again, three cheers to Stott (pictured below introducing the concert), this time for introducing the players to Sibelius’s Voces Intimae Quartet. Why does this great masterpiece not get programmed more often? Its central Adagio, flanked by two scherzo-like movements, is surely up there with those in the late Beethoven quartets, and it comes from somewhere deep; a throat tumour had been removed in 1908, the year before the work’s composition, so no wonder Sibelius wrote to his wife how it was “the kind of thing that brings a smile to your lips at the hour of death”. Stoney Middleton chamber concertThe passionate advocacy of Ensemble 360’s four players was boundless – I’ll make sure not to hear the work from anyone else for some time – and all the more remarkable since, in the company of fellow violinist Claudia Ajmone-Marsan, Roberts and cellist Gemma Rosefiled, the most cultured of artists, Canadian Corey Cerovsek, had stepped in for Ensemble 360’s regular Benjamin Nabarro ten days earlier.

Equally profound were the extreme sounds produced by Rosefield and double-bass player Philip Nelson in Schnittke’s Hymnus II, another masterpiece by another composer who lived under the shadow of death, and the racy but impassioned pace of the outer movements in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, where the supreme sophistication of these players shed extra lights throughout the variations on the song of that name. (Pictured below: the string players at a later concert, by Andy Brown).String players of Ensemble 360Tantalisingly, Ensemble 360 were in rehearsal with another of Stott’s special guests, bandoneonist and composer JP Jofre, while two of us were ascending from Hathersage to Stanage Edge in the Peak District earlier that Sunday (I've fallen in love with the area, and with Sheffield, too), and it was frustrating to hear Graham Fitkin, whose music Stott regularly espouses, talk so compellingly about his music’s relationship to ecological issues in a Saturday afternoon discussion about the climate crisis without being able to hear his Recur in a concert celebrating his 60th birthday with the players including his partner, harpist Ruth Wall.

I also want to hear the Moravian folk-inspired music of violinist-composer Pavel Fischer, appearing that Thursday, and what an amazing marathon it must have been for Stott and Horton in a Friday night concert covering both Rachmaninov’s two-piano suites and Symphonic Dances. It seems fair to leave the last word to Ensemble 360 in a tweet: “Kathryn Stott has been the dream curator, as programmer, pianist and simply gorgeous person to hang out with. We’ve had a ball!”

The central Adagio of Sibelius's 'Voces intimae' Quartet is surely up there with those in the late Beethoven quartets

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