A Delightful, Varied Concert from Ensemble 360

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Mozart, and Beethoven: Ensemble 360. Wigmore Hall, London, 3.2.2018. (MB)

Janáček – Concertino
Mozart – Quintet in E-flat major for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, KV 452
Beethoven – Septet in E-flat major, op.20

Juliette Bausor (flute)
Adrian Wilson (oboe)
Matthew Hunt (clarinet)
Amy Harman (bassoon)
Naomi Atherton (horn)
Benjamin Navarro, Claudia Ajmone-Marsan (violins)
Ruth Gibson (viola)
Gemma Rosefield (cello)
Laurène Durantel (double-bass)
Tim Horton (piano)

Ensemble 360 appeared here in its full complement of five string players, five wind players, and pianist, although never (quite) all at the same time. I have no idea why we do not hear Janáček’s Concertino all the time, but then I might say the same about all the music performed here, none of which suffers from over-exposure. Maybe it is just a matter of the slightly unusual ensemble, although it would hardly be difficult to put one such group together from time to time. At any rate, this proved to be a delightful, varied concert of delightful, varied, and yes, great music.

The commanding nature of the opening piano figure, both in work and in Tim Horton’s performance, ensure that it lodged itself in the memory securely, ready for what was to come. Soon one could hardly help but imagine oneself, whether musically or even scenically, in the world of The Cunning Little Vixen. The obsessive, obstinate quality of Janáček’s music shone throughout the first movement, and indeed beyond, with splendidly big-boned playing both from Horton and Naomi Atherton on French horn. Vixen-like scurrying announced the second movement’s well-matched partnership between Horton and Matthew Hunt on E-flat clarinet. Music and performance seemed almost to suggest a chamber fantasia on the opera – save for the fact that your common-garden operatic fantasia might seem somewhat vin ordinaire compared to this. (So, to be fair, would your common-garden opera to Janáček’s’s masterpiece.) It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that most chamber writing of this period will reveal a debt, a comparison, or at least a contrast with Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale; the third movement in particular did so here, without ever jettisoning a strong, true voice of Moravian modernism. Resolutely unsentimental as before, it and the final movement proved as colourful as they were rhythmically taut, a sense of joy in the ‘purely’ musical, however illusory, shining still brighter than any partial association.

No one with an ear would ever deny the masterpiece status of Mozart’s Quintet for piano and wind instruments. It is difficult to imagine anyone having done so after this performance, again big-boned, more Klemperer- than Böhm-Mozart, if that makes any sense, and certainly none the worse for it. Not that it was old-fashioned, hesitate though I may to use the dubious word ‘timeless’ here. Perhaps it is better simply to say that it was certainly Mozart – and what could be better than that? The grandeur of the first movement’s introduction was certainly communicated. So too, though, was the chiaroscuro of what followed. The work emerged as something close to a predecessor of the Berg Chamber Concerto – and, again, what could be better than that? The import of the development section’s modulatory plan seemed especially keenly felt, occasional very minor slips notwithstanding. I wondered to begin with whether the Larghetto might have yielded, even smiled, a little more, yet it certainly had, in its own way, the virtues outlined for its predecessor. Solo wind playing was delectable from all, likewise the Harmoniemusik as a little band. Any slight reservations I might have had evaporated during the course of the movement. Crucially for a finale, and however obvious they may sound, the final movement worked as something very much more than music that just happened to be placed last. Objectively, whatever that might mean, it was perhaps rather on the fast side for Allegretto, but I did not mind; and, if I did not, I doubt that anyone else would have done. Its character was well judged, a slight loss of tension in the approach to the cadenza notwithstanding, and that ultimately is what matters.

I am not sure that I can come up with a single minor reservation concerning the performance of what may well be Beethoven’s sunniest work, the Septet. The first movement, echoing Mozart’s in more than mere tonality, again benefited from an introduction on the grand scale, followed by an especially rhythmically alert performance of the exposition and indeed the rest. Not that, as sometimes, regrettably, happens with Beethoven, an emphasis on rhythm emerged in isolation; melody and harmony were equal partners, at least. Above all, though, this glorious music, which I love more than words could ever speak, made me smile and even shed the occasional tear. In abstracto, I might have thought the second movement again taken a little too quickly. There is, however, no in abstracto when it comes to Beethoven. It worked, flowing in utterly ‘natural’ fashion. The balance, once more, between detail and the longer line, between melody and harmony, could hardly be faulted, and I certainly have no wish to try.

Swifter than I can recall hearing, the Minuet likewise worked – with thrilling affection, as it were, in no sense sounding rushed. And yet, at the swift tempo, certain wind notes sounded intriguingly, indeed revealingly, close to Webern. (Maybe we should hear some of his music from these players; I do not doubt they would have something to say about it.) The Theme and Variations unfolded relatively quickly again, yet again without sounding rushed. I loved the viola and cello solos in the first variation for the real sense of the instruments they imparted, if that does not sound too nonsensical. The physicality of playing an instrument was certainly imparted, albeit by musical rather than distracting visual means. Wind instruments taking the lead in the following variation proved an equal, if different – is that not what variations are for? – delight. Every variation possessed and spoke of its own character, whilst retaining a strong, generative sense of relation to the whole. The scherzo proved, in tempo broadly understood and thus in character too, a step on, if only a step on, from the minuet, but that was quite enough. As for the finale, one might simply have asked ‘finale problem, what finale problem?’ The grandeur, again, of the introduction and the sheer joy of what ensued, taking daringly fast – it is, after all, marked Presto – registered with a keen sense of fun. The movement’s sterner moments and procedures, quite properly too; yet, however ‘symphonic’ we may consider this work, its place in the serenade tradition remained unchallenged.

Mark Berry

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