The Berkeley Ensemble

Another nice old London church, another concert…

This was at St George’s Hanover Square, a fine 18th-century building designed by John James in 1721-24, with connections with George Frederick Handel.  Broad, handsome, light and spacious, it is a fine church and a great venue for music (…but MIND YOUR HEAD if you’re going to the loo 😦 …)

Wednesday’s lunchtime concert was part of the Midweek Music in Mayfair series, given by the BERKELEY ENSEMBLE, a chamber group formed from members of the Southbank Sinfonia – including my niece Rosie on bassoon.

They played two pieces:  Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K581, and the Octet by Howard Ferguson (1908-1999) – surrealistically misprinted in the programme as ‘Maynard Ferguson (1928-2006)’, a jazzer who did indeed have an octet but didn’t write this one.

The Mozart featured John Slack on clarinet – one of the current breed of ultra-cool clarinettists, which is nice because he doesn’t intrude when it isn’t his solo, but he seemed almost too laid back to the point of disappearance on occasion, and it took him a while to warm up to pitch (which is odd:  shouldn’t the strings have tuned to him?).  Oddly, the first violin, Tatiana Bysheva, also seemed to disappear at times, but that might just have been from where I was sitting.  Otherwise the strings provided a rock-solid support, warm, dependable and very pleasing – Rebecca Mathews on 2nd violin, Dan Shilladay on viola (relishing his ‘sighing’ moment in the second Trio of the Minuet:  I always imagine that this part was originally played by Mozart himself), and, above all, Gemma Wareham holding everything together from below with her authoritative (but discreet) cello playing.   [click here for biographies of the players]

I came away thinking (as always) ‘What a wonderful piece this is’, which was the right reaction!  The clarinet (as played in the 1780s and 90s by Anton Stadler) brought out the best in Mozart;  I can never quite work out whether the thematic unity of the Quintet is deliberate, or if Mozart just came out with the same thematic shapes whenever he imagined the sound of the clarinet.  Either way it makes for a most satisfying and tightly-knit experience.

Then the Howard Ferguson:  I have to confess I was expecting something typically ‘English’ and characterless, and of course I was agreeably surprised.  The opening has a bittersweet, acid-drop quality (think of the Forlane from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, perhaps) – basically tonal harmony subverted by chromatic twists and turns.  At first I thought ‘Frank Bridge’, but my brother Tony said ‘somewhere between Finzi and Bax, which is a place I didn’t know existed’… The four movements do not disappoint, although the idiom varies at it goes along:  the slow movement is more conventionally tonal, but beautiful, and the Finale wanders off in the direction of Walton (big swoopy tune for viola and cello in unison), Britten (triadic string fanfares) and almost Tchaikovsky (a big horn tune) before the opening theme from the first movement comes round again.

A piece that definitely knows what it’s about:  great sounds, big-boned and very satisfying structure, very tricky to bring off, very well played.  It’s not special pleading to say that the bassoon has a particularly awkward part – difficult notes needing to be ‘joined up’ in angular but lyrical lines – but Rosie did a terrific job.  She was not helped, alas, by the clarinet’s diffidence once more;  I feel it really needed more leading from the front (incidentally, what an awkward line-up this is:  clarinet, bassoon, horn, string quartet and double bass – the model is of course the Schubert Octet).  The players sat in a rather confrontational layout:  string quartet in a line facing the three wind players and some distance away, with the double bass almost as a mediator between them.  Perhaps they could shuffle a bit closer together?

But I really have no quibbles.  It’s a fascinating piece and they played it brilliantly. This time the first violin (Tatiana Bysheva) really stood out when required, as did all the strings with their various solos.  The horn player was the apparently imperturbable Paul Cott – always spot on, big solid tone but careful not to drown the others.  A very nice way to spend a lunch hour.

And so, in the evening, to Cadogan Hall and the ECO, who gave us the most fabulous performance ever (which is saying something) of the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, K364, with Stephanie Gonley on violin and the amazing Lawrence Power on viola.  But that’s another story…

I have christened Lawrence Power ‘the Bryn Terfel of the viola’ – and explained to him that it’s meant as a compliment!

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