London Festival of Chamber Music

To my shame, I had never heard of the London Festival of Chamber Music, and this is their 13th year.  Thanks to a tip-off (thanks, Tony and Rosie) I found myself trundling off to deepest North Dulwich last night (05 Oct) – and what a treat it was.

I was expecting the usual draughty church hall in the back of beyond, but St Faith’s Community Hall, SE24, turns out to be a handsome brick and wood building (I would guess Edwardian), broad, squat, not large, but with a high wooden barn roof and balconies, giving it the feel of a tiny Snape Maltings.  Not a big audience, but packed and very enthusiastic.  Atmosphere and acoustic bright, warm and very welcoming.

The core of the Festival is the English String Quartet, leader Diana Cummings (behind whom it has been my pleasure and privilege to sit in various orchestras).  Their usual viola, Luciano Iorio, was unable to play because of a shoulder injury, but his ‘sub’ was the excellent Stephen Tees, and Mr Iorio instead made a charming and genial host, introducing players and works.

The evening kicked off with Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet;  Andrew Sparling has a charming manner, always with a shy smile even seemingly when he plays, and he is exceptional in that he is happy to get right out of the way when the clarinet part is only an accompaniment.  The performance radiated a tremendous love of the music, charmingly involved yet restrained.  Maybe the ritenuto upbeat to the Menuetto – every time! – was a bit overdone, but I won’t complain.

Then the Divertissement for Bassoon and String Quintet by Jean Françaix (good heavens, another bassoon solo!), in which the Quartet was joined by Stacey Watton on double bass, who was enjoying himself hugely – a terrifically musical player with a great sense of drama and fun, but very discreet with it.  Bassoonist was Daniel Jemison, who has already figured in these pages.  French music for bassoon is notoriously very difficult, tending to the very fast, very quiet and very high:  to perform it on a German bassoon sometimes feels a bit like the legendary dog walking on its hind legs.  That was slightly my reaction to the only other time I have heard this piece – in a broadcast of a recording by Robin O’Neill, only a few weeks ago – but Daniel Jemison banished such thoughts with his effortless, witty, dazzlingly accurate and warmly communicative performance.  He has a particularly winning vibrato, I thought, sparingly applied.  The secret of his lovely tone was revealed when he told me he plays on a Soulsby… ha!  Our exclusive club grows ever more distinguished.

After the interval, the Spohr Nonet;  the previous forces (minus second violin) were joined by Nicholas Korth (horn), Nancy Ruffer (flute) and John Anderson (oboe) – what the opera world calls ‘luxury casting’ indeed.  And what a jolly piece it is – full of teasing wit, charm, invention and a suavity of sound that belies its early date (1813).  Sullivan was the composer who most often came to mind.  What a nice combination (wind quintet plus one of each string) – I’m surprised there aren’t more pieces for it:  Rheinberger, Martinů… anyone else?

Everyone, players and audience, emerged smiling, to be greeted by wine and a chance to mingle – a very nice way to end a lovely evening.

The Festival gives weekly concerts in four different ‘outer London’ venues – Palmers Green, Wimbledon, Dulwich and West Hampstead.  If you can possibly get to them, do!  This must be London music’s best kept secret.

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