The final concert in Northern Sinfonia’s summer chamber music series followed the pattern of the first two, sandwiching a lesser-known piece between two staples of the chamber music repertoire, and giving different groups from the orchestra the opportunity to step forward. In the two concerts in the series that I have reviewed (the other one’s here), no line-up has been repeated, and very few players have played in more than one piece. Different players introduced each piece too, giving the series a delightfully friendly and welcoming atmosphere.

Joachim Raff, towards the end of his life; image from raff.org
Joachim Raff, towards the end of his life; image from raff.org

The interesting filling in tonight’s sandwich was the String Sextet by German-Swiss composer Joachim Raff. Cellist James Craig challenged audience members to put their hands up if they had heard of Raff before this concert – there were one or two, but for most of us, this was new territory. Raff worked as a composer and teacher at the heart of the late-19th-century European musical world: he was friends with the conductor Hans von Bülow, worked for Liszt, and employed Clara Schumann to teach composition at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where he was director. Although his large output, which included 11 symphonies, was very popular in his lifetime, he was quickly forgotten, overshadowed by his contemporaries.

James Craig closed his introduction to the sextet by saying “It’s charming, I know you’ll enjoy it”, and it was indeed a delightful work. The opening theme of the first movement, however, was a beautifully rich, dark melody, with a central-European folk feeling to it, that could have been written by Brahms, and the jig-like second movement was full of fun. There were times, though, particularly in the longer first and third movements, where it was hampered by a lack of structure, with too many different ideas that didn’t develop.

The Raff sextet was preceded by Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Wind, a piece written in 1792 when Beethoven was still in his twenties, and which stands as a companion piece to Mozart’s wind quintet – employing the same combination of instruments (oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano), and written in the same key. Much of the work owes something to Mozart in the elegance of its style, but there are hints of early Romanticism in moments such as the lovely expressive theme in the second movement, played first on the oboe and later taken up by the horn.

In comparison to string chamber music, wind ensembles offer a much broader pallet of colours, and Beethoven makes the most of this, matching up different combinations of instruments for duet passages, all of which were very effective this evening, particularly Jessica Lee and Daniel Finney’s clarinet and oboe pairings in the outer movements. The ensemble balance was good, although one of the instruments was making a rather distracting reedy sound which wasn’t there during the solo and duet passages, and which suggested that one or more players were overblowing to achieve the balance.

Pianist Lynda Cochrane was the lynchpin of the Beethoven and the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor that closed the concert. Her playing in the Beethoven was wonderfully focused, holding everything together, whilst in the Brahms she was able to let go, and bring out the excitement, driving the other players onwards, particularly in her pounding introduction to the third movement, and throughout the energetic rondo of the last. The Quintet demonstrates Brahms’ strengths brilliantly, showing his ability to write music that is exciting and passionate, but within the constraints of a formal structure, so that things never get out of hand – it’s this that makes the difference between a first-league composer like Brahms, and the mostly-forgotten Raff.

This evening’s performances were a little patchy in places, with odd problems of tuning and timing in places, particularly during the Brahms, but what they lacked in polish, they made up for with the sheer pleasure of music-making, epitomised in cellist Su Lee’s stylish cello solo in the last movement of the Brahms, or Sarah Roberts’s spirited cadenza-like passage in the Raff. The overall experience of these concerts has been like having a chance to see behind the scenes of Northern Sinfonia and discover what makes individual players tick, whilst at the same time enjoying some fine chamber music.