Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Ensemble 360’s opening concert of the Spring season of Music in the Round deployed nearly all the group’s musical forces, only the piano being missing from its 11 members. The five pieces on the programme had plenty of variety, but the spirit of the dance and the folk music of Northern and Eastern Europe underlay much of the evening, together with other variously subtle links.
For instance, the evening opened with chamber music arrangements of two pieces better known in full orchestral versions. Sibelius’ En Saga began life as a chamber piece, initially an octet, then a version for flute, clarinet and five strings, but the composer destroyed both versions and all sketches. Ensemble 360 played a reconstruction of the septet by an American musicologist based on the 1892 orchestra score. This proved wholly convincing, from its atmospheric folkloric opening to the rhythm of the dance, all the instruments sharing the lead, with the interplay of clarinet and flute particularly striking, then, after an emotionally intense passage, fading away on a haunting cello figure.
Franz Hasenohrl’s arrangement of Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel (with “einmal anders” – “something different for once” – added to the title) was simpler fun. Strauss’ original called for a large symphony orchestra to re-create the pranks of the medieval joker Till Eulenspiegel; in the 1950s Hasenohrl created a shortened “musical grotesque” for violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn. A witty entertainment and a virtuoso showpiece for all five instruments, the lighter scoring even suggested operetta or a silent film score at times.
The remaining three pieces were all scored for four strings and five wind instruments, with a further inter-connection the fact that the two either side of the interval were both first performed by the Czech Nonet in 1959. Bohuslav Martinu, dying of cancer in exile, paid a last tribute to his homeland in his Nonet, the lyrical melancholy of the second movement contrasted with the lively outer movements with their suggestions of folk music, ending with the spirit of the dance. Witold Lutoslawski’s Dance Preludes carried on that mood after the interval, five short pieces, the vigorous first, third and fifth full of as much humour as momentum.
The concert ended with the most substantial work on the programme, Louis Spohr’s Nonet in which apparently he was asked by his patron to bring out the individual colour of each instrument. Through a symphonically structured four-movement work he did just that, exploiting contrasts in dynamics and instrumental textures – and, to match the mood of the evening, the final Vivace was a gallop to the line.
Ensemble 360 perpetuate a tradition at Music in the Round, initially established by the late Peter Cropper and the Lindsay String Quartet, which combines rigorous standards of performance with a total absence of formality. And, oddly, that actually enhances the excellence of the performance: casual chats from the performers spark off the occasional laugh but are also helpfully informative, and the rotating seating of the group within the intimate in-the-round setting brings out wonderfully the interaction between the musicians.
Reviewed on 1 February 1 2017 | Image: Contributed