The brainchild of the London Bridge Ensemble, the Winchester Chamber Music Festival has been running since 2008. As a city only an hour’s train ride from the musical lights of London, it’s encouraging to see Winchester become a chamber music destination in its own right for this four-day festival. This was a series of concerts where big-name composers were performed to an international standard, rather than the place to hear a première. The final concert, on a muggy Sunday afternoon, was an appropriate finale. The programme made a stab at being eclectic, with two sets of early 20th century Webern miniatures to start. Yet the meat was in two substantial Romantic works. Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio in D minor completed the first half, with the String Sextet in B flat by Brahms ending the afternoon.

Heath Quartet © Sussie Ahlburg
Heath Quartet
© Sussie Ahlburg

Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano are, typically of the serialist composer, sparse and brief – but very deliberate. The violin and piano exchange small notes and motifs, creating the effect of a slow conversation. It was an emotionally rich conversation however: edgy violin harmonics, articulation including left hand plucking, rapidly contrasting emotion and tempi. The Three Little Pieces for Cello and Piano were also pared-down but expressive, with a fluid quality helped by the familiar ease between pianist Daniel Tong and both string players. Each of the “Pieces” lasted just minutes. It was chamber music stripped down, but played with precision and power.

Young violinist Benjamin Marquise Gilmore and cellist Kate Gould (who is also Festival Artistic Director) stayed on stage to form a trio with Tong for the Schumann. The four movements of this Trio have distinctive characters, but what they had in common here was an engaging momentum. The first movement, Mit Energie und Leindenschaft certainly had energy, but also a quick-changing moodiness, sometimes allowing the sweetness of Gilmore’s violin to shine through, once surprising with a new theme sul ponticello on the cello, sometimes allowing the piano to become dominant. The interpretation of the second movement was especially successful, the strutting ascending theme vividly brought out and almost refusing to die away. The third movement was a brilliant contrast, creating a slow and deep texture. Then, a fizzy coda transformed the atmosphere to create a rousing finale. It was not an over the top performance, but the Trio’s refined but heartfelt passion had a strong impact, not least owing to the fairly intimate size of the venue.

For the Brahms Sextet, the two LBE members were joined by the entire Heath Quartet. The combination was a smooth blend of tones, and the players were well atuned to one another, as demonstrated in a unison plucking phase in the first movement. There’s an engaging freedom to this sextet, with more sense of overall shape and fewer individual enigmatic motifs than the Schumann. This afternoon, it was beautifully developed, ripening out of a broad first movement into a spirited Andante and Scherzo. Despite meandering in the rondo finale, the pairing off of the instruments towards the end rediscovered a sense of fun before another bold finish. The ensemble seemed mostly to have good chemistry that came through in their music. It’s not the most emotionally wrought piece by Brahms, but the Sextet had a strong sense of momentum and a warm, stylish sound.

It might seem hard to see how the Webern in the first half sits naturally alongside these two rich ensemble works. But it is valid in the context of Webern’s love for the late Romantic era, and provided variety and lightness that stopped the programme becoming in any way stodgy. The entire festival programme was designed in this way, with works in several concerts signposting toward related pieces in others. This was a high standard of Chamber music-making in a relaxed venue – what more could you want on a Bank Holiday?