The prospect of queueing up for 40 minutes on a cold grey evening in Sheffield doesn’t put off fans of Music in the Round. Their Autumn Series of concerts is almost sold out all the way through to December. Social distancing in a totally Covid-secure environment meant that it didn’t feel like a sell-out performance by Ensemble 360, but that’s what it was. From the moment Ruth Gibson introduced the music though, it was obvious that the audience would make up for their lack of numbers with a heightened sense of enthusiasm and anticipation; absence makes the ear as well as the heart grow fonder, even if music in The Upper Chapel, as opposed to the Crucible Studio, is music in the square rather than music in the round.

Ensemble 360 members © Kaupo Kikkas
Ensemble 360 members
© Kaupo Kikkas

The Haydn quartet they started with (Op.77 no.1) could have been specially chosen for its refreshing, restorative powers. The cheerful opening conversation, between first violin and cello, was precise and energetic from Benjamin Nabarro and Gemma Rosefield, and the sprightly Allegro from all four players was beautifully balanced by the sudden, strikingly sedate, hymn-like passage in the development section. The slow movement is a gem; the unison opening theme is dressed up in a comely variety of harmonies that almost look forward to Schubert. And, in common with many young quartets today, Ensemble 360 aren’t afraid to tackle exposed unison passages without vibrato, even when pianissimo, so the contrast with the warm harmonies was refreshing. The Minuet is almost Scherzo-like in its pace, and in the Trio, all four players attacked its extraordinary staccato chords with a savagery almost reminiscent of Peter Cropper at his most vigorous. Ruth Gibson (viola) and Natalie Klouda (standing in for Claudia Ajmone-Marsan on second violin) had been a little subdued up to this point, but the last movement gave them more opportunity to join in the conversation and they took it up with relish.

Many people, including Beethoven himself, have regarded his String Quartet in C sharp minor Op.131 as his greatest. It is backward as well as forward looking, and the first of the seven movements gives all four players equal importance. It's a slow fugal movement lasting around seven minutes, and all four players combined to achieve a carefully crafted delineation of the theme and its countersubjects. Once again, the return to a playing style more in keeping with the Classical era, with a reduction in heavy vibrato, brought real pathos to this moving music. Beethoven’s late quartets require some sounds that would have been extraordinary at the time and, throughout, Ensemble 360 attacked the violent pizzicatos and weird sul ponticellos with relish.

Classical music during lockdown has been a mixed bag, with some performances, both live and streamed, suffering from an understandable lack of rehearsal time. There was no evidence of that here, and the necessarily small audience responded noisily to Ensemble 360s dedication to quality with understandable enthusiasm.