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Intimate chamber music of the highest rank

Seen and Heard International, Colin Clarke

The Sheffield Chamber Music Festival continued with this superbly and intelligently programmed evening of ‘French Gems’…

“To begin, Benjamin Nabarro and Horton delivered a restrained performance of Ravel’s short Berceuse in tribute to his teacher, Gabriel Fauré, Nabarro’s violin deliciously sweet-toned. It was the perfect way to draw the listener into the beauty of the evening.”

After the previous night’s Saint-Saëns extravaganza… and the resultant stirred enthusiasm, it was good to see the late Oboe Sonata… Adrian Wilson was the superb oboist, completely in control… Joined by the ever-sensitive Horton (who seemed to particularly revel in Saint-Saëns’s sophisticated harmonic twists in this piece)… Wilson and Horton allowed the music the perfect space to breathe… the central Andantino is light as a soufflé, the gentle doted rhythms here perfectly placed by Wilson… A fabulous performance of a fabulous piece.

Thomas Adès has a love of both Fauré and Couperin. His basset clarinet quintet Alchymia (2021) was written exactly 100 years after Saint-Saëns’s Oboe Sonata… The slowly carved descents of ‘A Sea-Change (… those are pearls …)’ reveal a veiled world replete with mystery, the control of Robert Plane’s clarinet equal to that of his string counterparts (Benjamin Nabarro and Claudia Ajmone-Marsan [violins], Rachel Roberts [viola], Gemma Rosefield [cello]).

‘The Woods So Wild’ is elusive, but rapid. It is based on a popular street song that William Byrd had himself written variations on, the movement’s final arrival point like a ray of sunshine through the forest.

“The performance was note perfect, but this was more than virtuosity; it was intimate chamber music of the highest rank, a true evocation of the ineffable.”

… A special note, perhaps for violist Rachel Roberts’s lyrical playing in [the last movement of Adès’ Alchymia]…

Adès’s piece also self-references the opera The Tempest… It is a masterly piece, and it was hard to imagine a more masterful performance.

It is difficult to imagine a more different piece than that which launched the second half, André Messager’s Solo de Concours for clarinet and piano… There is the most beautiful cadence in the approach to the cadenza – both beautifully rendered here, with Plane’s clarinet relishing the release from the leash in the cadenza itself.

Finally, Franck’s impassioned Piano Quintet, a big-boned, 35-minute piece asking for maximal virtuosity from all.

“Horton was in complete command (Frank’s demands are positively monumental): the quartet of strings (Nabarro, Ajmone Marsan, Roberts, Rosefield) was in perfect accord both within itself and with Horton’s piano.”

Dialogues between piano and strings brought the piece into the realm of the heroic in the first movement, while the central Lento con molto sentimento was awash with lyricism, often of the glowing variety. This was expressive but not sentimental in the negative sense, the perfect contrast to the buzzing opening to the finale. The sense of a vast structure was present throughout; a structure that included not only incendiary passages, but moments of high beauty.

The performance was a reminder of the stature of his work as masterpiece. Superb.

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