United Kingdom Ironstone Chamber Music Festival – Strauss, Dvořák, Mendelssohn: Lucy Gould, Simon Blendis, Alex Redington, Jonathon Stone (violins), Hannah Shaw, Garfield Jackson (violas), Kate Gould, Richard Lester (cellos). St Etheldreda’s Church, Horley, Oxfordshire. 8.9.2018. (CP)
Dvořák – String Sextet Op.48
Strauss – String Sextet from Capriccio
Mendelssohn – Octet Op.20
St Etheldreda’s Church in Horley, noted for the medieval wall paintings of St. Christopher (c1440), provides the most convivial atmosphere in which chamber ensembles can excel. Sisters, Lucy and Kate Gould, established this remarkably welcoming event in 2013 – the organisation well-managed by Tessa and Chris Howell.
Blissful Strauss and energetic Dvořák preceded the major attraction of the evening – the sophisticated marvel of 19th century music – Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat major, Op.20, the finest work in this form. Many believe this work bridges the gap between Mendelssohn as a chamber composer and Mendelssohn as the symphonist. Sticking to the original scoring of double string quartet of four violins and pairs of violas and cellos, the ensemble overcame a worrying viola crisis lasting most of the week until late on Friday when Garfield Jackson of the Endellion Quartet stepped up to second viola, with Hannah Shaw in turn stepping up to first viola.
Lucy Gould began the vast first movement determinedly, Alex Redington and Jonathon Stone from the Doric Quartet adding intelligent support, plus Simon Blendis, until recently with the Schubert Ensemble, giving this foursome superb balance. Members of the Doric Quartet are in a Mendelssohn mood having recently launched their latest recording of his quartets, recorded in the rich acoustic of Potton Hall, Dunwich, in Norfolk. Nevertheless, this performance couldn’t be less akin to double string quartets playing together; this sublime outcome is the result of identifying and bringing together superb technicians from differing environments, Kate Gould confidently representing the trio fraternity. What a fine example of music as the service to connect people; there is a sense of exalted joy. Many in the audience wish that experience could have been captured as a recording in the fine acoustic conditions of St. Etheldreda’s Church.
In spite of the week-long viola crisis the playing was fresh and bubbly, with cellists Lester and Gould scurrying to produce a dazzling finale. For those who travelled many miles across the Midlands, to witness this rare opportunity, couldn’t have asked for more. This was an occasion to treasure; the players have the technique to respond to every change of mood, of which there is plenty. Their virtuosity is the means to an expressive and memorable end. An encore would have been inappropriate; thankfully none was expected.
Earlier this summer Garsington Opera produced the Strauss last opera, Capriccio, with positive reviews of Douglas Boyd’s conducting of the beautiful overture. As a string sextet, Op.85, the setting-the-scene for the opera is a blissful, eloquent fifteen minutes of delicate, almost brittle playing with a hint of a Wagner and Verdi motifs within.
In contrast, Dvořák’s Sextet in A major for strings, Op.48, attempts to replicate what Brahms achieved in his sextets of 1859 and 1864 and in 1878, the first performance was given in the presence of Joseph Joachim in Berlin. This proved to be an outstanding advertisement for Czechoslovakia with the dumka typical of Slovak folk tunes and the furiant typical of Czech dances. With energy and a show of enjoying playing together, the Blendis led sextet delivered the saturated Czech rhythms with overwhelming beauty.
Many will be looking forward to the eighth year of the Festival in September 2019. And perhaps the opportunity to be part of a crowdfunding exercise to pay for a recording of a concert. The Carice Singers did this in January with their CD issued by the BBC Music Magazine this month.