Newest is best:Turner Ensemble at King’s Place, London

Schubert, Poulenc, Fribbins, Beethoven: Turner Ensemble (Ania Safonova  (violin),  Andriy Viytovych (viola), Naomi Williams (cell0), Tony Hougham (double bass), Nick Rodwell (clarinet), Andrea de Flammini (bassoon), Robert Montgomery (French horn)). London Chamber Music Society at King’s Place, London. 15.5.2011 (KC)

Franz Schubert: String Trio in B flat (unfinished – Allegro movement only) D471
Francis Poulenc: Sonata for Clarinet & Bassoon Op 32
Peter Fribbins: The Zong Affair (after J M W Turner’s ‘Slave Ship’) (World Première)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Septet in E flat Op 20

The Turner Ensemble comprises first class musicians with busy professional lives. Each one has a connection with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. They make time (on Sundays?) to make music together, while honouring  a master in another  field of the arts – the great painter, J.M. W. Turner. The program notes point particularly to ‘his universal lyricism of colour, light and space’, together with the ‘inspirational’ way his work is rooted in both the past and the present.

This evening’s concert is, if I understand rightly, the fourth concert in a series of five as Ensemble in Residence. It includes two works almost 200 years old (the distant past); one from almost 100 years ago (the more recent past) and one new work, receiving its first performance.

Schubert, when aged 19, completed the Allegro for string trio, began a second movement and  then laid the unfinished work aside. It was only published some 74 years later. As the Turner Ensemble showed, the Allegro is engaging and unpretentious – mellifluous and tripping, expressive of a burgeoning teenage individuality. It has style and melodiousness, but is not yet quite distinctive.

Beethoven wrote the Septet as he was approaching thirty. (Its minuet is borrowed from the Piano Sonata no. 20). It is accomplished and exuberant, having the swagger of a man of success, on the top of his form – giving no hint of the cloud (of deafness) already darkening his career as a brilliant concert pianist.  It has high spirits and is easy on the ear – indeed, it is foot-tapping in places, unbuttoned, and unashamedly populist. It is also fail-safe: almost any calibre of performance will enchant. The Turner Ensemble was sprightly and expert. The catchy melody of the Allegro con brio raised the spirits each time it appeared and the minuet’s mock gravity tripped along deliciously. The clarinet solo stating the theme for the Tema con variazioni, the violin’s occasional moments of operatic resurgence and the horn’s predominance in the Scherzo gave particular pleasure. There was dullness, too – routine playing that did not spring to life.

The Poulenc sonata was a no more than competent squib. This delectable pairing of clarinet and bassoon had a rare outing. (How many sonatas exist for this combination?) Unfortunately, it crossed the Channel very damply, losing its Gallic qualities and style – Poulenc’s brilliant, witty, ironic, acerbic precision. Instead, we had a stalwart but rather clomping Mummerset version, genial but stolid.

The showpiece of the evening was Peter Fribbins’ “The Zong Affair”. The Turner Ensemble has commissioned three compositions, each one a musical reaction to a Turner painting. Peter Fribbins, is artistic director of London Chamber Music Society and Director of Music at Middlesex University. The ‘Zong’ (which Turner depicted about 1840) was a slave ship whose drivers, in 1781, in the face of an impending typhoon, tipped dead and dying slaves overboard. Fribbins’ style is modern/melodic – lucid and attention-catching, demanding upon the ear but not grating. His instructions announce the range and variety of the different sectors of this one movement work: MisteriosoAllegro feroceDrammatico ma tenebre (Poco meno mosso ma flessible)Allegro feroce.  This was a new and demanding work. On both counts, the première performance required concentration – and time for rehearsal. The result was rewarding. This was the best, most closely articulated music of the evening – played with meticulous concentration, marking the exceptional quality of these players at their best. “The Zong Affair” was sonically adventurous and imaginative, whether providing the loneness of solo performance, the differing of voices within a duet, the contrast of woodwinds against strings or thickened substance during an ensemble passage. The brooding horror of the inhumanity was chilling, the ferocious onslaught of the typhoon was crushing and the brooding peace as the sea regained calmness whilst holding its dreadful receipts was unnerving. This – in composition and performance – made the evening worthwhile.

Ken Carter