Ensemble 360  Enchants at Crucible Studio’s 30th Anniversary Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Schumann:  Enszemble 3260 [Naomi Atherton (horn), Time Horton (piano), Benjamin Nabarro (violin), Gemma Rosefield (cello)], Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 8.12 2014. (JK)

Schumann: 5 Pieces in Folk Style (cello and piano)
Brahms: E flat trio (horn, violin and piano)
Sonata in A (violin and piano)
Schumann: Trio (violin, cello and piano)

Despite numerous visits to concerts in the Crucible Studio, it is always a surprise to hear and see musicians playing in this extraordinary bear pit. With a capacity of 400, there are no members of the audience who do not feel they could literally reach out and touch the players. So ‘Music in the Round’ sees players totally surrounded by listeners and – being in Sheffield – the audience is known to be highly knowledgeable. Some fine professional performers have spoken of their fear of appearing here where any mistake is instantly recognised by everyone present. But the four players of Ensemble 360 really had nothing to fear as their performances were enchanting.

Reviewing the works is not the same as reviewing the experience of the venue. Its 30th year still brings out the best and worst of the soundscapes conjured up by the players. In the opening work, Gemma Rosefield immediately conjured up an easygoing, folklike approach with Vanitas vanitatum played, as Schumann requested “mit Humor”. The higher register notes sang out whilst the Eusebio-like bass outbursts punctured through impressively. But the acoustics of this unique venue are quite unresponsive to the cello’s middle range – a fact that makes the sensitive player work harder to be heard at those moments. It was in her langsam (slow) movement where her beauty of tone could best be enjoyed. Her pianist was Tim Horton – a remarkable musician about whom more anon.

It was good to hear the Brahms Horn Trio. It is not often played as the combination of horn, violin and piano has to be put together especially for such occasions. In a way it was an odd choice for the Crucible Studio as the massed ranks of audience bodies all around the players ensured that the natural resonance of the horn calls were instantly muffled. But Naomi Atherton performed well with many delicate touches. Her violin partner is a most impressive chamber musician. Benjamin Nabarro varied his vibrato from an expansive, wide, melodic sound to a tiny, thin vibrato to exactly match the horn’s vibrato-less line in a way that demonstrated his extreme sensitivity to the music. After the interval, he performed the A major Brahms sonata which, again, highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the venue.

The A major is perhaps the most difficult of Brahms’ three violin sonatas to pitch. The G major is unequivocally tuneful whilst the D minor requires a powerful, dark approach. The A major provides more opportunities for reflection between the piano and violin: something of which Benjamin Nabarro and Tim Horton were well aware. The result was a delight. The high point occurred in the winding melody of the middle movement where, again, the violinist’s capacity to draw the audience into the most intimate dialogue was assisted by our physical proximity. The glorious finale with the double stopping that Brahms must have imagined echoing round a Viennese salon could not echo in the Studio. Instead we heard the violinist and pianist enjoying the ride which we were overhearing.

The final work was played by the three players who make up the Leonore Piano Trio. They are obviously accustomed to performing together as the intricacies of the Schumann were negotiated with ease. The first movement could easily be thought of as a third Mendelssohn piano trio. Not until the slow movement did the fine-lined relationship between the parts (especially between the violin and cello) become quintessentially Schumann played with a perfection that was emphasised by the closeness of everyone present. As an encore, the three of them played the scherzo from Brahms C major trio. I would like to hear them play the whole of that great work as they are obviously all wonderfully attuned to Brahms.

The one person who played throughout the evening was the pianist Tim Horton. He had beneath his fingers a monster Steinway grand piano with which he could dominate every bar of every work if he had wished. Instead, he played with a lightness of touch for which many accomplished pianists would give over their year’s earnings to acquire. Even at the end of the evening, the feathery finger work never failed as the Brahms scherzo whistled around the venue.

As this was the 30th anniversary, we were addressed by a long-time performer who has now retired as a player – Peter Cropper. In a strange speech he exhorted all present to join him in supporting live classical music against a government that has no feel for the power and significance of music. Whilst no one present would disagree with his sentiment, I was more than aware that when in Birmingham years ago and met with the same appeal by Simon Rattle, the gap in charisma between them might mean that any attempt to have the equivalent to Birmingham’s Symphony Hall built in Sheffield could not be erected on the older man’s promised commitment. Instead, he appealed for continued support for the 30 year old Crucible Studio. He contrasted the Studio with London’s Wigmore Hall where he said his old string quartet, the Lindsays, could get away with mistakes whereas in Sheffield’s intense, bear pit, nothing could escape the listeners sitting, literally, on top of the players. Maybe it is the fact that the sound rises up and hits your whole body before arriving at your ears that makes this place so uniquely suited to the intimacies of great chamber music. Whatever the reason, Music in the Round’s studio probably ranks as the finest chamber music venue in the UK – warts and all.

Joseph Kovaks