Music: Stanford, Haydn & Schubert
Reviewer: Nicola Harrison
Catherine Drinker Bowen (1897-1973)
Leeds International Chamber Season was premiered by spectacular performances from Opera North Ensemble. With a carefully designed programme that utilised all the instruments and genres of music in the intimate setting of The Venue at Leeds College of Music, the audience were able to feast on the delights of Haydn, Schubert and Stanford, all pioneers of the chamber repertoire.
Opera North Chamber Ensemble comprises of members of the Orchestra of Opera North, founded in 1978. Its members all bring a variety of experiences and personalities to the group, making them unique and innovative in their approach to the music.
Chamber music was originally intended for the palace chamber, however, due to the intimate atmosphere created by the small group of instruments it was written for and the collapse of the aristocratic system at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was later performed in musicians’ homes for more than two hundred years before migrating to the concert hall.
Haydn (1732-1809) is regarded as the creator of modern chamber music and he is traditionally known as the father of the string quartet’. Following Beethoven’s independent approach to chamber music, Schubert (1797-1828) went on to establish the romantic style. His lyrical themes and dramatic utterance provided extreme color contrasts that reflected the tragedy and conflict in his own life. Stanford (1852-1924) later gave further innovation to chamber music with a variety of chamber works that championed British music.
The programme opened with Stanford’s magnificent Fantasy for Horn and String Quartet. Its lyrical themes, contrasted with more vigorous character and light-hearted mood was relished by the ensemble. Robert Ashworth (horn) gave a spectacular solo performance.
Haydn’s String Quartet Op 76, No 4 (Sunrise) comprised of four movements. The performers showed good interplay between parts in the first movement, demonstrated poignant ease in the second and enjoyed the playful dance of the third. This movement was more vigorous and was performed with intension enabling them to relax into the final movement, its contrast between sections and instrumental interplay enabling the performers to exploit their skills as a quartet and ensemble.
Schubert’s Octet brought the evening to a splendid close. It comprised six movements and was lead with clear direction, control and sensitivity. The players warmed to this piece as tension built up in the development of the second movement leading to the playful and energetic third movement which was clearly enjoyed by all performers. Schubert’s masterful ability to surrender a melody, develop it and transform the theme with different parts was exploited through the colour created in the different sections. The fourth movement came alive with solo highlights from Robert Ashworth (horn) and Sally Pendlebury (cello), while the fifth movement’s charm and grace worked well with the playful unison melody between clarinet (Colin Honour) and bassoon (sebastian New). The sixth movement was introduced by the cello’s dramatic tremolo passage, providing an interesting contrast to the other movements. This built up to an impressive climax where all performers were fully immersed in the experience leading to a showstopping finale.
All performers demonstrated great versatility and skill in the evening’s chamber repertoire, but it was under the masterful direction of lead violinist, David Greed and the clear dynamism and musicianship displayed by David Aspin (viola), Sally Pendlebury (cello) and Sebastian New (bassoon) that really sold the evening as the heart and soul of ‘a conversation between friends’.