There have been no shortage of war-themed concerts in the last few weeks, but putting the title “The Sound of War” on last night’s chamber music concert by the Royal Northern Sinfonia didn't really do justice to some excellent and imaginative programming. This was an evening of delightful rarities and discoveries, with everything we heard coming from well outside the standard repertoire: in his opening comments, pianist Alasdair Beatson, a highly experienced chamber musician who has just been appointed chamber pianist in residence at Sage Gateshead, admitted that even he’d never heard of the Hummel septet on the programme until asked to play it for this concert.

Alasdair Beatson © Giorgia Bertazzi
Alasdair Beatson
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Hummel’s Septet no. 2 in C major, Op.114was the most obviously martial piece on the programme. It presumably gets its nickname “The Military” from the inclusion of a trumpet in its decidedly unusual line-up alongside piano, violin, cello, double-bass, flute and clarinet, but the RNS players gave it so much wit and sparkle that the charming and seductive soldiers in a Jane Austen novel were brought to mind. Hummel showcases each instrument across the four movements, with Jessica Lee (clarinet) and Tristan Gurney (violin) making the most of their lovely expressive lines in the second movement, whilst the lower strings (Sian Hicks and Gabriel Waite) stopped anyone from getting too serious. Beatson’s light touch on the piano was a delight, whilst Marion Craig showed the trumpet’s capacity as a chamber instrument, balancing nicely with the softer instruments.

Howells' sacred music is so much part of the fabric of British choral life that it overshadows his instrumental compositions, so it was good to see the RNS redressing this imbalance. The Rhapsodic Quintet, composed in 1919 for clarinet and string quartet, suggests the serenity of the English countryside that had remained unblemished, but not ignorant, while war destroyed the fields of Flanders – just as Howells himself escaped the devastation, too ill to be sent fighting. The quintet is in a single movement, although it sweeps through a range of moods, from the dreamy opening to moments of frenzied passion. Lee glided ecstatically up rapid scales and had a relaxed warmth in her tone throughout. The end of the quintet was poured out in a smooth legato by all five players onto a gorgeous final chord that melted into a long silence.

Lili Boulanger was also seriously ill during World War 1 and died before it ended, in March 1918, aged just 24. Her loss is one of those great “what-ifs” of history: she had already become the first woman to win the Prix de Rome composition prize, and had she lived she would surely have become as great a force in 20th-century music as her sister Nadia. Eilidh Gillespie and Beatson gave a tantalisingly brief glimpse of that lost talent with two miniatures for flute and piano: Cortège for violin and piano had an impressionistic languor, enhanced by the fragility that Beatson brought to the piano part; D’un matin de printemps was composed not long before Boulanger died, but it bursts with colour, life and promise, tragically looking forward to the spring she would never see. Gillespie played it with vigour and a spirit of joyful wonder, as if Boulanger’s soul had lived on in her music.

With composers from Austro-Hungary, Britain and France on the programme, there may have been some intention to represent the great powers that fell into World War 1, and it was to Austro-Hungary that the RNS returned to end the concert, with Ernst von Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet no. 2 in E flat minor, Op.26. Written in 1914, the Quintet looks unashamedly back to the nineteenth century, and in the waltz of the second movement – beginning with a viola solo from Mike Gerrard that was steeped with nostalgia – there was a feeling that we were hearing the last breaths of an age that was about to disappear forever. Throughout the evening, Beatson’s piano playing stood out for its gentleness. Here, as he twirled his line around the viola, he brought a freshness and immediacy as if hearing the music for the first time, making it clear that he has already built an excellent rapport with the long-established members of the RNS chamber music team who performed with him tonight. There was a lot of passion from all in the first movement of the Dohnányi, whilst the complex counterpoint of the third was full of shadows, before it gave way to Beatson’s beautifully shaped hymn-like melody. The RNS players ratcheted up the tension in the final movement, before Waite’s cello cooled everything down, and, as lost time slipping away forever, the music vanished in a little puff of smoke.

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