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Sheffield Chamber Music Festival 2024 review - curator Steven Isserlis spotlights masterly Fauré and Saint-Saëns | reviews, news & interviews

Sheffield Chamber Music Festival 2024 review - curator Steven Isserlis spotlights masterly Fauré and Saint-Saëns

Sheffield Chamber Music Festival 2024 review - curator Steven Isserlis spotlights masterly Fauré and Saint-Saëns

More delights in the round as Ensemble 360 is joined by very special guests

A carnival at close quartets: Ensemble 360 play Saint-SaënsAll images except the last by Matthew Johnson

“Saint-Saëns: The Renaissance Man” proclaimed the big screen at the first remarkable programme I attended within the 2024 Sheffield Chamber Music Festival. The same epithet could be applied to this year’s curator, Steven Isserlis, so remarkable a cellist that one forgets until coming face to face with his other talents what a unique speaker and programmer he is.

Sheffield's resident live wires in Ensemble 360 anticipated the generosity by granting his requests, among other things, for the showing of a silent film, probably the first (1908) to have a live score by a major composer (Saint-Saëns), and for a choir to take part in La vision de la reine, a rare work by Augusta Holmès, muse of Franck and Renoir. The open-heartedness paid off, as it did last year with pianist Kathryn Stott. The 2023 experience was enough to get me addicted both to this remarkable, multi-faceted city and one of the most vibrant chamber music festivals anywhere. I only wish I could have been there for all of it: I missed, among other things, a sunrise wind-quintet concert in the General Cemetery, the Holmès in a very unusual programme and – following my departure – Roderick Williams in Ravel's Chansons madécasses and Fauré's La bonne chanson. Ursula Leveaux and Tim Horton at the Sheffield Chamber Musc FestivalFauré was the main subject in this, his centenary year, and I was to hear, and re-live, some of his chamber masterpieces during my time in Sheffield. But it seemed appropriate that while last year's dazzling opening concert ended with a performance of Saint-Saëns's perfect, chameleonic Septet for trumpet, strings and piano, 2024 should see some serious catching-up with that most prolific of Frenchmen; if there was any revelatory feting of his achievements in the 100th anniversary year of his death, 2021, I missed it. Yet here we were on Tuesday evening with a dizzying celebration.

The opening work, the Morceau de concert for horn and piano, was chiefly a way of spotlighting Ensemble 360's wonderful horn-player, Naomi Atherton, in tandem with its infinitely adaptable pianist Tim Horton – and how typical of this collegial festival that in her pre-performance speech, Atherton hymned the next instrumentalist, Ursula Leveaux, for having inspired her in showing how much you could stand out within an orchestra during their time in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. But Leveaux's work, the Bassoon Sonata, triggered a voyage of discovery, an epiphany of Saint-Saëns's compressed, light-of-touch but somehow deeply serious late style (Leveaux pictured above with Tim Horton). Back home, I've been catching up on other chamber works, and haven't found a dud or a dull one yet..Sant-Saens' fllm score at the CrucbleLike Nielsen's stupendously original clarinet and flute concertos, the Indian summer sonatas were to honour a quintet of wind. Saint-Saëns got a little further before his death at the age of 86, adding to the Bassoon Sonata companions for oboe and clarinet. All three first movements convey the ineffable, as old man Fauré does quite differently; the compact structures then do unexpected things. As Leveaux pointed out, every voice of which the bassoon is capable – and which so few works truly honour – is there, while as Adrian Wilson showed us the following night, the radiance of the sonata for his instrument extends into an ad lib dialogue with piano. Horton shared equal honours in both works.

The woodwind get surprisingly beautiful and original phrases in the score for The Assassination of the Duc de Guise, a 20-minute film directed by Charles le Bardy and André Calmettes chiefly remarkable for its display of 16th century gentlemen's hosiery. The fourth seating zone of the octagonal Crucible Playhouse had been replaced by a big screen; conductor George Morton managed perfect synchronisation from his 12 players (pictured above).

Philip NelsonIn an evening where the floor space was more or less fully occupied by the musicians, we also had Les odeurs de Paris, a jolly, silly "Grande Marche", the UK premiere of which in 2004 included Isserlis, where the tune wasn't so much the point as the special effects freeing up the players from their usual roles (I found Atherton's nightingale whistle rather addictive and want one). Mercifully the pistol shot anticipated at the end was a quiet one.

The abundant japes in The Carnival of the Animals – still a chamber work in its original version – certainly worked; I've never chuckled more at the Elephant playing a Berlioz sylph and Mendelssohn's Puck than in the hands of double-bassist Philip Nelson (pictured above), and Isserlis, who'd come hotfoot from Frankfurt to hear three concerts before his own participation, set the applause off for that one. But what mesmerised here were the almost supernatural beauties, starting with of all things the Offenbach can-canning Tortoises – kept at an oddly energised pianissimo from the unison strings along with pianists Horton and (a surprise to see her name on the leaflet) Ivana Gavrić.

The keyboard mysteries were magically done, too, even pulling focus from clarinettist Robert Plane's cuckoo in the wood – well, maybe not his upside-down joke before vanishing – until of course we got to the disastrous piano exercises of No. 11. Gemma Rosefield's Swan (pictured below) brought tears to the eyes by its very restraint: no mawkishness here, only the exquisite handling of the score's 11 o'clock number. That the performance as a whole could be so moving begs the question of why the composer wanted the work suppressed in his lifetime. Its variety is the very essence of Saint-Saëns. Gemma RosefieldI'd have given much to hear Plane in the third of the late sonatas, but he had extended limelight of a different sort, holding the golden thread through the slow-fast labyrinth of Adès's Alchymia. This four-movement Clarinet Quintet was composed for Mark Simpson, and descends hypnotically to the extended lower register of the basset instrument (Plane gave us a preliminary demonstration). "A Sea Change (...those are pearls...)" and "Lachrymae", with its very subterranean reference to Dowland, are elegies that exploit dark timbres, with "The Woods So Wild" as a fascinating moto perpetuo contrast in between; but it's less clear how the finale, "Divisions on a Lute-song: Wedekind's Round", connects with the rest other than in the title. As in the model, the introduction to the final scene of Berg's Lulu, Adès submits the barrel-organ London tune to distorting-mirror variations. Perhaps the overall theme is death, but as so often with this composer you always want the beginnings of profundity to go deeper. An evocative, fine-tuned performance, all the same.

In an epic programme, the miniature mastery of Ravel's simply perfect Berceuse sur le nom de Fauré and Messager's graceful, unpredictable Solo de concours for clarinet and piano held focus. But Franck's winged beast of a Piano Quintet was the thing: a vehicle for the highest feats of virtuosity, exhausting simply to listen to, from Horton, and tireless strength from the strings (violinists Benjamin Nabarro, Claudia Ajmone Marsan, viola player Rachel Roberts and cellist Rosefield). It stood us in good stead for Fauré's seemingly free flow: this passionate outpouring of love for dedicatee Holmès (Madame Franck was not amused) never repeats itself exactly, however much it harps on certain themes and intervals. Rushdie Momen, Isserlis and DuvalThere was a perfect balance between complexity and sheer poetry in Mishka Rushdie Momen's supremely poised Thursday morning piano recital (Rushdie Momen pictured above with Isserlis and Irène Duval). Mendelssohn's Variations Serieuses coruscated at the centre, their unfolding seamless. Programme-wise, I'd have been inclined to start with the three Rameau pieces so lightly ornamented rather than Fauré's miraculous Nocturne No. 13 and Schumann's Gesänge der Frühe No. 1, which despite its title also seems more of a night-piece, fit for 11pm rather than 11am, though very welcome. Rushdie Momen made a magical avian connection between Schumann's "Prophet Bird", her fourth choice among the Waldszenen, and Ravel's "Oiseaux tristes" from Miroirs. Nothing daunted by a mobile phone adding its voice to her phantasmal coda, she went on to give us William Byrd's Lachrymae Pavan after Dowland's "Flow, my tears" – a link to the Adès, an ideal encore for which "perfect" is again the only word.

It was quite a day for the seemingly unflappable young pianist. She shone, too, that evening, the perfect partner for Isserlis in Nadia Boulanger's very accessible Three Pieces and Debussy's always elusive late Cello Sonata; for that you simply need a pianist and cellist who hold focus at every moment, and these two absolutely did that. I'd heard another ideal pair, Isserlis and violinist Irène Duval (pictured below), play Ravel's Sonata for violin and cello at the Fidelio Cafe. Despite Isserlis's amusing distinction between "dog" ("love me") and "cat" ("I don't care whether you love me or not") music, placing this in the second category, I adored it then and was in seventh heaven to hear it again. Duval and IsserlisLikewise Fauré's late Piano Trio (the pianist at the Fidelio was Alasdair Beatson), where you can never quite work out how the supple magic is achieved. But the depths were most truly sounded in Isserlis's piano-trio arrangement of the slow movement from Schumann's Violin Concerto, emotion already prepared by his narrative of how it starts with his last melodic inspiration, conjoined with the treatment of that in the "Ghost" Variations – three composed in extreme mental distress, the fourth after Schumann had tried to drown himself in the Rhine. To think that Clara and company tried to stifle the swansongs, and praise be to Isserlis and his team for giving them hallowed space.

There was one more discovery for me to add to the Saint-Saëns late sonatas and the Schumann in the form we heard it. Duval and Isserlis began the Friday lunchtime recital with Enescu's Second Violin Sonata. I knew the Third as an infinitely inflected, challenging masterpiece, but didn't know that this one deserves equal status in a very different style, with intimations of Fauré bound in to a unique world full of constant surprises (the voices from another planet which end the slow movement, the buoyant yet never superficial tricks of the finale). Like Rushdie Momen, Duval can unleash a focused ferocity and a far-seeing wisdom well beyond her years.

Maybe the short early Fauré Violin Concerto in a version with piano rather than orchestra was bound to feel conventional after that, but Duval and Horton held their heads high throughout. And the real reason for hearing it was the theme the master returned to in his final work, the String Quartet which soars and beats against heaven's gates again and again, the undiminished rapture of the increasingly deaf and terminally ill octogenarian composer realised with unstinting generosity of spirit by Duval, Ajmone Marsan, Roberts and Rosefield. What a way to leave the Crucible and head for the afternoon train back to London, treading air.

Watch L'assassinat du Duc de Guise with Ensemble 360 playing Saint-Saëns's score on YouTube

The Bassoon Sonata triggered a voyage of discovery, an epiphany of Saint-Saëns's compressed, light-of-touch but somehow serious late style

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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