On the penultimate day of Music in the Round’s Sheffield Chamber Music Festival, audiences had the option of booking a late afternoon event, then an evening one, with refreshments, and perhaps analytical conversation, in between. And yes, there was plenty to talk about after Ensemble 360’s Copland, Weir and Mozart offering. Copland said of his Duo for Flute and Piano, “I tried to make it grateful for the performer… it requires a good player.” The audience was certainly grateful, and Juliette Bausor is certainly a good player. Her melodic line flowed with graceful simplicity at times, then was woven in rapid complexity with the beautifully balanced pianism of Tim Horton.

Ensemble 360
© Music in the Round

It’s Music in the Round’s 40th anniversary in a couple of years and Ensemble 360 have been going since 2005; the reputation of both is such that they attract stand-in musicians of the highest quality, and composers of the highest quality come to hear their works performed. But you might have thought that performing what is in effect a dance suite, with complex harmonies and irregular rhythms, together with three invited musicians would present an insurmountable challenge; particularly as the composer, Judith Weir, was in the audience. Goodness knows how they found the rehearsal time, but in Airs from Another Planet, James Pillai slotted the horn part in despite being a last minute addition; Ursula Leveaux’s bassoon danced in sprightly fashion, particularly in the jig; Peter Sparks added a short but lovely solo in the traditional air, and Horton held it all together.

The first half of the evening’s entertainment ended similarly (but with no clarinet), in a rousing performance of the best thing Mozart wrote in his life – according to him at the time anyway – his Quintet in E flat major for Piano and Winds, K452. 

After very pleasant wine and conversation, Horton launched not a double bill, but a triple bill of Beethoven piano sonatas. This could be overkill in the hands of some pianists, but Horton brought much colour to the black and white – power and precision, then delicacy and dreams. In the Piano Sonata no. 30 in E major, this was best demonstrated in the final movement, where Horton gave its slow, bel canto-like opening a dreamy, distant feel, then contrasted this with a stormy, but clear fugato. The Sonata no. 31 in A flat major has a really wonderful demonstration of Beethoven’s obsession with the fugue in his final period. Of course, even the early piano could bring out one line of the counterpoint more strongly than the others, and on a modern one pianists like Horton can do Beethoven’s fascination with Bach justice. Beethoven’s last sonata is something else though. How can rage and tenderness be expressed in just two bars? Well, the first two of this sonata can and Horton made them. The studio was gripped as he progressed from what seems like Beethoven exploring the feelings of his turbulent past in the first movement, to his hope of some future serenity in the second and last.

Tim Horton
© Kaupo Kikkas

To say that Horton then took a well-earned break is something of an understatement – the next item was an arrangement for string quartet of a choral piece, The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Errollyn Wallen. In the hands of Ensemble 360, it was varied, at times dramatic, and always approachable. Perhaps this moving music could be slotted into a larger-scale piece by the composer at some point.

And then Horton was back, and with Gemma Rosefield, played the Invocation for cello and piano by Cheryl Frances-Hoad; a moving tribute to Munch’s painting, Melancholy. The final item was to have been Beethoven’s last string quartet, but the replacement item was no disappointment in the hands of Horton and Rosefield. They approached Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 5 in D major with the sort of emotional and physical vigour that would have made Music in the Round’s founder, Peter Cropper, proud, as would the overwhelmingly enthusiastic applause and foot-stamping that followed.