Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Nottingham Trent Unversity Hall, Nottingham
March 21 2023
Review: William Ruff
An hour of concentrated loveliness from the ASMF
A visit from members of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields is always a major event on the musical calendar. The ASMF brand has shone brightly for as long as I can remember – and I go back a long way. They performed on Tuesday at the Trent University Hall: only for an hour but managing to pack in more concentrated loveliness into that intimate performing space than one might think possible.
One of the pieces in their programme was unexpected – because who knew that Borodin had written a String Sextet? Borodin is famous for writing all those hummable tunes from the Hollywood musical Kismet. They mostly come from his Polovtsian Dances and from his 2nd String Quartet. That’s about it for most people. Oh, and quizzers tend to know that he was a full-time professor of Chemistry and only a part-time composer.
It’s not surprising that his Sextet has been neglected as only two of its (presumably) four movements survive. They are well worth an airing, however, as the first movement has much charm and is rather clever in construction with each of the six instruments entering with the theme one after the other. The second movement Andante is typically Russian: a song-like melody, very poignant and soulful. It requires plenty of rich tone to do it justice and the ASMF players certainly had plenty of that.
Their opening work was Bach’s Musical Offering and if that is little known it’s possibly because of its dauntingly cerebral reputation. It was called an ‘offering’ because Bach offered it as a gift to the musical king (Frederick the Great) who had devised the not terribly promising theme for Bach to work with. What the composer invented is a marvel of the art of writing fugues and the ASMF Ensemble’s razor-sharp precision allowed the listener to hear how each strand of the Ricercar a 6 movement fitted into the glorious whole.
The big work on the menu was Brahms’ String Sextet No 1. Brahms has the reputation of being a Very Serious Composer, the one with the long white beard. But he was once young and surprisingly beardless and it was this younger version who wrote the first Sextet when still in his twenties and undergoing more than a little emotional turbulence. He clearly knew what he was doing, understanding how a sextet had to sound: not just a quartet plus extra viola and cello, but something with a character all of its own. The ASMF clearly understood this too, as in the Andante’s set of variations, music that is delightfully imagined for the forces available, studiously avoiding the trap of creating textures which could be mistaken for belonging to a quartet. In the startlingly brief Scherzo the ASMF relished the chance to be both pithy and vigorous before a finale which must be among the sunniest music which Brahms ever wrote.
Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble
Tamas Andras, violin
Martin Burgess, violin
Robert Smissen, viola
Fiona Bonds, viola
Will Schofield, cello
Juliet Welchman, cello