When the best-known piece on the programme was Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Wind, Op.16, familiar enough but hardly a crowd-puller, it was seemingly inevitable that audience numbers would be low for this concert by five members of Ensemble 360 (and exceptional stand-in bassoonist Emily Hultmark), but those who stayed away missed a treat. I would be lying if I claimed the music was revelatory or earth-shattering, but the experience made a refreshing change.

Juliette Bausor
© Kaupo Kikkas

The Beethoven quintet, the evening’s one undeniably major work, ended the concert and the performers relished its drama and conversational dialogues, from the seriousness of the Grave slow introduction to the playful Rondo that ends the piece. Pianist Tim Horton was characteristically effortless in his command of the concerto-like demands of the solo part, but plaudits too for Naomi Atherton’s horn playing in the frisky arpeggios of the first movement’s coda. In the slow movement, new Ensemble 360 clarinettist Robert Plane engaged in some lovely singing exchanges with Adrian Wilson’s oboe. Before this work, Juliette Bausor on flute decorated the top line of a couple of excerpts from an oddity in the output of mature Beethoven: three variations on Von edlem Geschlecht war Shinkin (Op.105 no.2) and five variations on Volkslied aus Kleinrussland (Op.107 no.3), from Beethoven’s two sets of National Airs for piano with flute accompaniment. Introducing the pieces, Horton pointed out how these works are utterly unlike the composition whose opus number sits between them, the great Hammerklavier piano sonata, but even though this was lightweight fare, one could understand why the National Airs were a less than rip-roaring commercial success for the publisher. Beethoven tended to make the piano part too difficult for the amateur and was waylaid by his fascination with variation form that was so characteristic of his later years. Horton and Bausor treated these Scottish and Ukrainian themes with affection and respect.

The first half of the concert was scarcely better known. We began with Danzi’s Wind Quintet in B flat major, Op.56 no.1, the work of a composer beloved of wind players but otherwise not a household name. Franz Danzi, alongside his contemporary Anton Reicha, shares the parentage of the wind quintet as a genre, but Danzi’s writing is the more genial, offering listeners a good-natured stroll through a benign musical landscape. Benign but not inconsequential – and Ensemble 360’s players embraced the work's challenges, with its idiomatic wind writing and, occasionally, gently thoughtful mood. The quintet was then joined by Horton for Louise Farrenc’s Sextet for Piano and Winds in C minor, Op. 40, the first known piece for this combination of forces. It’s a composition of some seriousness and emotional turbulence, even if it seems to run out of inspiration before we reach the close, relying rather too much on keyboard passagework reminiscent of Hummel or Mendelssohn. Horton and his wind players made the most of the first movement’s harmonic interest and drama, though it was in the lyrical Andante sostenuto middle movement that we reached the music’s emotional heart.  Farrenc wrote nothing for the opera house (one reason why she was less acclaimed in 19th-century France?) but if she had done, the singing lines of the wind solos and duets reveal what her operas might have sounded like. The playing of all concerned was tender and intimate, giving the audience compelling reasons to seek out more of this neglected composer’s output.

And a rating? Three stars for the music, but four stars for performances that reminded everyone of the varied contribution Ensemble 360 makes to our musical lives.

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