The Mayflower Ensemble in Romsey: a stimulating mix of music, eloquently played

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Romsey Festival 2023 – Zemlinsky, Smith, Rachmaninov, Horovitz, Brahms: Mayflower Ensemble (Nicola Heinrich [cello], Alison Hughes [clarinet], Karen Kingsley [piano – replacing Samantha Carrasco]). Abbey URC Church, Romsey, 10.7.2023. (CK)

The Mayflower Ensemble at Romsey Festival 2023

Zemlinsky – Allegro ma non troppo from Trio in D minor, Op.3
Alice Smith – Andante from Clarinet Sonata
Rachmaninov Andante from Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op.19
Horovitz – Con brio from Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano
Brahms – Clarinet Trio in A minor, Op.114

On Monday evening Southampton’s Mayflower Ensemble treated us to a fascinating and well-proportioned programme of music for clarinet, cello and piano. The main work was Brahms’s late Trio, Op.114; they preceded this with a wide-ranging sequence of four single movements extracted from longer works – almost a polystylistic metasonata of its own: it proved a stimulating mix.

Zemlinsky is an immensely likeable composer, doomed for decades as an also-ran, but now becoming better known. Teacher of Schoenberg (who married his sister); passionate lover of his piano pupil, the dazzling Alma Schindler, until she dumped him in favour of Gustav Mahler … in 1896, all this lay ahead of him: how wonderful, then, to hear the Allegro from his Op.3 Trio in D minor, with its Brahmsian richness and its soaring lyricism (not a million miles from Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht of three years later). It is a substantial movement: these players gave it an eloquent, even opulent performance, revealing its drama and its sense of a dream world, darkening to a minor-key ending.

Alison Hughes, the Ensemble’s clarinettist, has been researching the music of Southampton-born Alice Verne-Bredt, pianist, composer and pioneer of children’s music education; the Ensemble have performed her Phantasie Trio, and were to do so in this concert, but the indisposition of their pianist Samantha Carrasco led to a change of programme. We heard instead the Andante from a Clarinet Sonata by another Alice – London-born Alice Mary Smith, dating from 1870. Nothing here to scare the horses, but not parlour music either: lyricism with an old-world grace, virtuoso cascades, plangency too – Alison’s playing unlocked the music’s expressive potential, finally winding it to silence over quiet piano chords.

Hughes’s clarinet made way for Nicola Heinrich’s cello in the Andante of Rachmaninov’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. Hughes’s programme note drew attention to the close kinship this Sonata has with the Second Piano Concerto – an equally touching tribute, perhaps, to the hypnotist Dr Dahl, instrumental in restoring the composer’s confidence after the disastrous reception of the First Symphony. The connection with the piano concerto is immediately apparent as the piano enters in expansive, lyrical vein: at times, indeed, the music suggested an impassioned piano solo with cello commentary. Heinrich’s cello soon asserted itself as an equal partner, making a wonderfully rich sound in the Abbey Church’s warm and intimate acoustic, the music borne along on a tide of Romantic feeling and expression. It was just gorgeous.

So overflowing is Rachmaninov’s bounty that my companion detected ‘Bess, you is my woman now’ amidst the stream of melodies. The final piece before the interval – the finale (con brio) of Joseph Horovitz’s Sonatina for clarinet and piano – brought Gershwin more specifically to mind. Written for Gervase de Peyer (who I well remember, sitting alongside Jack Brymer in André Previn’s London Symphony Orchestra), it drew beautifully stylish, jazz-inflected playing from both performers, but especially from Hughes’s freewheeling, joyous, skirling clarinet, over a wide compass. The audience loved it.

And so to Brahms – bringing us full circle, since it was Brahms who got Zemlinsky’s Trio published: only five years separate these examples of late Brahms and early Zemlinsky. Brahms came out of retirement to write his Trio in A minor for clarinet, cello and piano; and it is hard – try as one might – to avoid the word ‘autumnal’ to describe the wistful, even melancholy quality of the work’s lyricism. Not that there is any want of energy or richness. The cello launches both first and second themes in the opening Allegro, and their working out is complex; though there is a lovely, gently bubbling passage for clarinet and cello near the end. In the Adagio the clarinet shines first, then the cello; the music flows like a river, clarinet and cello sometimes alternating, sometimes playing together. A passage where the clarinet muses over the cello’s gentle pizzicato caught the ear; so did the graceful waltz that followed (Andantino grazioso). The Trio – a lively Ländler – was deliciously pointed. In the finale, the cello sets off again vigorously: there is plenty of rhythmic energy (with a touch of alla zingarese), and a sense (how does Brahms do it?) that the three players constitute a small orchestra as they work towards the powerfully wrought conclusion.

Marvellous music-making from all three players: with a special mention for experienced solo and ensemble pianist Karen Kingsley, sounding as though she has been playing with Nicola Heinrich and Alison Hughes for years. For the quality of their playing, their pioneering approach to repertoire and their skill in communicating with audiences, The Mayflower Ensemble deserve to be known and appreciated across the area which they serve, and more widely too.

Chris Kettle

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