Can you think of any connection between Robert Schumann and John Ruskin? Ensemble 360 playing some Schumann just round the corner from the Ruskin Museum in Sheffield? Correct, but beside the point. The point is that they both wrote extensively about their respective disciplines, and in the eyes of some this has been judged more important than their art, or their music. Yes, Schumann wrote some fine piano music, they might say, but was only persuaded by his wife to tackle more ambitious works and they’re not important. That was a line peddled in the last century – ‘thickness and lack of variety,’ to quote the Oxford Companion to Music.

Adrian Wilson © Kaupo Kikkas
Adrian Wilson
© Kaupo Kikkas

So this Ensemble 360 concert began with three pieces that have likewise been described as “poetic Hausmusik”, or merely a Christmas present to his wife. But in the hands of Adrian Wilson (oboe) and Tim Horton (piano) the Three Romances Op.94 display no lack of variety in timbre and, more importantly, emotion. Their playing brought out a spectrum of sentiment, ranging from sublime contentment to a haunting expression of doomed love – a few years earlier Schumann had begun to suffer the psychotic episodes that led to his death.

Carl Reinecke was a friend of Schumann’s and played the piano in the first public performance of the Romances. He was also a prolific composer, and amongst his output is the Trio in A minor for oboe, horn and piano – an unusual combination of instruments, but one full of interest. When Naomi Atherton added the horn to the piano and oboe, it was easy to see why the piece had been chosen. The lyrical possibilities in the first movement were well explored, then in the Scherzo, the rat-tat-tat bickering of the horn and the oboe caused smiles all round.

Back to Schumann then, and more historical as well as musical interest. The Adagio and Allegro in A flat major was the first substantial composition for the modern valve horn, and like Schumann’s more well-known follow up, the Konzertstück for four horns, it explores the virtuosic qualities of the instrument – ably demonstrated here by Atherton.

Naomi Atherton © Kaupo Kikkas
Naomi Atherton
© Kaupo Kikkas

On the other hand, hundreds, possibly thousands of piano trios had been written by the time Brahms, only just twenty, decided to write one. Even at this stage in his career though, he had been hailed by Schumann as “the chosen one”, the future of music. Tim Horton was joined by Benjamin Nabarro (violin) and Gemma Rosefield (cello) to demonstrate the accuracy of the prediction.

Immediately this version of the Piano Trio no. 1 in B major, revised by Brahms himself, struck one with its quality of construction, and one was seduced by the quality of the musicianship to just sit back and listen to the music. The performance brought out the orchestral qualities and the symphonic construction of the first movement, which was followed by a fleet-footed Scherzo, where Horton’s lightness of touch (fingers rather than feet) made even the page-turner smile. Horton followed this up with the opposite – a sombre, chorale-like tone in the antiphonal dialogue with the strings. The finale returns to the symphonic style, but displaying a mature originality, Brahms ends this major-key work in the minor. Assisted by Horton, Nabarro and Rosefield though, Brahms managed to make this a triumphant ending to a wonderful exploration of chamber music from the mid-19th century.

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