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Kaleidoscopic versatility

Ensemble 360 Strings Piano Ref 6 Please Credit Kaupo Kikkas Smed

The Spectator, Richard Bratby

Gabriel Fauré composed his song cycle La bonne chanson in 1894 for piano and voice. But he added string parts later and he premièred that version in April 1898 at the London home of his friend Frank Schuster: 22 Old Queen Street, the building currently occupied by this very magazine. I’m not sure how much Fauré gets played at Spectator HQ these days; his music certainly hasn’t been a feature of recent summer parties…

The studio theatre at the Crucible doesn’t exactly evoke the belle époque either, but on this occasion that hardly mattered. It’s a utilitarian black box, but the atmosphere it generates – with audience closely packed on all four sides of the performance space – is wonderfully immediate, especially when (as on this occasion) it’s filled to capacity…

The instrumentalists were Ensemble 360 – the resident ensemble of the Sheffield Chamber Music Festival – and the singer was Roderick Williams…

…Earlier, in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, [Roderick Williams had] practically shaken the walls in the second song ‘Aoua!’ (in which Ravel, canny as ever, futureproofs himself by setting a ferocious denunciation of French colonialism). The players of Ensemble 360 (here, a flute, a cello and a piano – the group’s kaleidoscopic versatility is one of its strengths) responded with explosive force.

In truth, though, they’d been playing out of their seats all night. The eerie, humid sounds that Ravel drew from a high cello and a low piccolo were redolent of woodsmoke and tropical musk: Tim Horton, the group’s long-serving pianist and (you sensed) its rock, was particularly fine here.

“But in La bonne chanson and (earlier) Fauré’s D minor Piano Quintet they surged, glittered and swelled, with a powerful sense of sap rising.”

After the interval, the strings were replaced by five wind players for a tangy account of Poulenc’s Sextet – bold primary colours splashing, Raoul Dufy-like, against Horton’s crisply inked outlines…

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