Chamber Classics Unwrapped Ends with Infectious Joy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Schubert. Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble [Tomo Keller (violin), Jennifer Godson (violin), Robert Smissen (viola), Fiona Bonds (viola), Stephen Orton (cello), John Heley (cello)] Hall One, King’s Place, London, 13.12.2014 (LB)

Antonin Dvořák – String Sextet in A, Op. 48
Franz Schubert – Sting Quintet in C, D. 956

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble’s concert at Kings Place on Saturday evening marked the conclusion of the series ‘Chamber Classics Unwrapped’ featuring the 50 most popular chamber works, as voted for by the BBC Music Magazine’s readers.

Franz Schubert’s final chamber music work, the Quintet in C major D. 956, often affectionately referred to as the ‘Cello Quintet’, was voted No.1 and the Academy’s Ensemble the nominated performers for this grand finale to a terrific and star-studded series of concerts.

The ASMF Chamber Ensemble opened their programme with Dvorak’ s Sextet in A Op. 48, and the packed house was made to wait until after the interval to hear the BBC Music Magazine readers’ favourite piece of chamber music.

Audiences have grown used to hearing compositions like these, which fall outside of the scope of more traditional chamber music formations, performed by established string quartets with star soloists as their guests, rather than by ensembles dedicated to specialising in and mastering this complex repertoire. In terms of years, the members of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields’ Chamber Ensemble has an accumulated experience running well into triple digits, and that became evident as soon as they started playing.

The Allegro moderato first movement benefitted from a persuasive unanimity of purpose, and the hall was bathed in a rich and radiant sound, the power of which was amplified even further by the vast dynamic range and great clarity of articulation.

By now the now the ensemble was well into its stride and their performance of the Dumka exuded great poise, with the ensemble’s exquisite dynamic control a particular delight. The Furiant sizzled, with Tomo Keller’s effortless virtuosity a real pleasure to witness.

All eyes were fixed on violist Robert Smissen at the beginning of the finale, and the captivating sounds he conjured from his viola provided a fertile foundation for the subsequent variations, with the musicians rising to the challenge and bringing proceedings to a tumultuous and rousing conclusion.

Expectations were now heightened for the Schubert after the interval.

The subtraction of one viola from the texture was immediately perceptible, but once the ear had adjusted not just to the new instrumentation, but also to Schubert’s musical idiom, the quintet began to unfold with majesty, and the superlative musicianship of Tomo Keller, playing on a 1665 Andrea Guarneri, inspired and propelled the ensemble to a spellbinding performance of great emotional depth. Every minor detail was lovingly taken care of, but in a manner that unerringly contributed to the grand purpose of the work as a whole.

The first movement was rhythmically incisive, with the emotional power of every unexpected harmonic twist and turn effectively exploited, whilst the sublime slow movement was lovingly and tenderly presented, with John Heley’s pizzicatos as expressive as they were incisive.

The almost symphonic-sounding scherzo proved to be as joyous as anyone present could possibly have hoped for, but it was in the trio that the ensemble’s meticulous instrumental command was a particular joy to behold. Each subtle nuance benefitting from maximum commitment; every risk paid off handsomely, resulting in the kind of music making that is all too rare nowadays.

It was in the Hungarian finale, however, where the ensemble’s highly developed aesthetic sense was most effectively utilised. The natural exuberance of the music was never subordinated to good taste, but was instead harnessed to maximum effect.

The enthusiastic audience response left me in no doubt that we had been party to a very special event, for which both Kings Place, but especially the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble should to be congratulated.

Concerts of such quality and infectious joy ought to be cherished.

Leon Bosch.

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