When Peter Cropper brought the Lindsay String Quartet to Sheffield in the 1970s, one of his stated aims was to create a world class chamber music series in the city. Few would disagree with the view that he achieved this within his own (too short) lifetime, or that he also found a venue that’s almost unrivalled in its intimacy – the atmosphere that makes chamber music such a pleasure. In semi-retirement, he then went on to safeguard this legacy by supervising the creation of Ensemble 360 and we saw one of the most powerful proofs of this work in their latest concert.

Ensemble 360 © Kaupo Kikkas
Ensemble 360
© Kaupo Kikkas

In an evening of chamber music for strings and wind that spans two hundred years, who better to start with than Mozart? His Oboe Quartet embraces all the elegance and profundity expected. Unusually, for a mature work, Mozart gives almost all of the interest to the oboe and violin; Adrian Wilson (oboe) and Benjamin Nabarro (violin) responded superbly. Wilson has always had the ability to make the physical demands of the oboe sound relaxed, occasionally even closing his eyes for long periods of time. In his introductory talk he mentioned virtuoso passages – these he managed to disguise so that one almost took the playing for granted, particularly in the astonishingly brisk passages of the finale.

Poulenc’s music is the 20th century’s ideal companion to Mozart. But wait a minute – his Elegy for horn and piano doesn’t sound like Poulenc, and even starts with a serialist, or in other words atonal, melody. It’s a powerful and deeply felt tribute to the horn player Dennis Brain after his death in a car crash sixty years ago. As if in a pre-thriller TV programme, French horn player Naomi Atherton warned us of violence from the start and with pianist Tim Horton, she revelled in the variety of emotions the work requires. And this does include Poulenc-style wistfulness at the end, as if once he’d got over the shock, he was accepting death with the religious faith we know he possessed.

Messiaen was another devout Roman Catholic, although Le Merle noir for flute and piano is more important for being the first of his pieces to describe the song of a specific bird – the blackbird. The depiction of this bird’s very familiar song gave Juliette Bausor the opportunity to display the wide range of timbres of which the flute is capable. As a piece of music however, the work is at its best when not actually trying to portray the bird exactly. 

Brahms isn’t often associated with violence in his music; tunefulness, deep emotion, and an unrivalled talent for thematic development, yes. But violence? His Piano Quintet in F minor has everything you would expect, but also an urgency that almost amounts to violence. Ensemble 360's was a mesmerising performance, so it's worth analysing the players' individual qualities. 

Is there such a thing as a chamber music pianist? If so, Tim Horton, a founder-member back in 2005, has developed into one of the finest examples in the country. Always a hard worker, his presence pervaded the whole evening without being over-dominant, but in the Brahms his power and virtuoso technique were vital. Cellist Marie Bitlloch was also a founder member with the Elias Quartet, which now works independently. Elegantly in the background of the Mozart, here she was a potent influence and made a much welcome return. The viola is often too much in the background, but not here, and the physicality of Ruth Gibson’s performance added to the almost orchestral sound of the strings.

The Elias Quartet may have been a hard act to follow, but Ensemble 360’s violinists, Claudia Ajmone-Marsan and Benjamin Nabarro have managed it. Passion and intensity are one thing, but combined with astonishing rhythmic accuracy and a dynamic visual display, they and the whole group gave festival goers a night to remember.

*****