Nottingham Chamber Music Festival, 5*****: by William Ruff



Nottingham Chamber Music Festival 2019


July 12-14 2019


Various venues, Nottingham




Review: William Ruff



A Festival of discovery and high-octane emotion – with something for everyone


This is only the second year of the Nottingham Chamber Festival, yet already it feels like an essential part of the city’s musical life.  Renewal and discovery are clearly an important part of the mix.  So this July the menu ranges even further than before: from Russia to America and from there to the edges of the solar system.

Families are catered for, as are those who like the multi-sensory pleasures of music accompanied by fine food and drink.  There is even coaching provided for budding chamber musicians.  And both connoisseurs and new-comers are made to feel equally at home.

One particularly unusual event this year was the piano duet version of Holst’s The Planets performed by Robert Hunter and James Longford ‘Keys to the Universe’.  You might think that they must have the vast symphony orchestra treatment to make them shine.  But Holst carefully prepared a piano duet version, fearing his expensive vision wouldn’t be heard otherwise.  I

t is quite a revelation to hear just how powerful this version is – and just what one discovers when the music is stripped back to the bone. It was a sometimes mind-boggling feat of endurance for the two performers, who dazzled not only with their agility and their command of tonal colour but who somehow managed to avoid entangling their fingers or pushing each other from the piano stool.

Each of the seven planetary portraits emerged as if newly created, the paint still wet.  And accompanying their performance was an ingeniously beautiful visual tour of the solar system created in collaboration with the National Space Centre.

Such events don’t happen by accident.  Carmen Flores and her colleagues James Dickenson, Tamaki Higashi and Nick Stringfellow of the Villiers Quartet are at the beating heart of all this enterprise and activity.  And once again they stamped their clearly defined hallmarks on the Festival.  In their Russian programme they started with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces, works which challenge the whole idea of the string quartet, the four instruments not so much in dialogue with each other as in competition.

After this bracing start we were in much more familiar territory.  Borodin could almost have written his 2nd Quartet with a Nottingham summer evening in mind.  It seems to overflow with hummable tunes – but the Villiers Quartet know that there is much more to it than that, always keeping a balance between precise elegance and joyful spontaneity.  It’s a work which has the composer’s devotion to his wife at its heart, so the VQ were careful to suggest its seriousness as well as its tender, sensuous and exultant aspects.  It’s all very Russian in its unashamedly emotional intensity – and the VQ spoke its composer’s language with an entirely authentic accent.

This degree of authenticity was also a hallmark of their playing of Shostakovich’s 3rd String Quartet, a work written in 1946 charting the course of the war – from the preceding calm towards its violence and suffering, the finale asking the question ‘Why, and for what?’

It may seem extraordinary to thrust the epic weight of such a narrative onto the shoulders of just four string players, but the VQ packed a mighty punch, especially in the grippingly violent third movement, music which erupts with bitterness and raw explosive energy. The music covers an extreme range of moods as it explores what it means to be human in a time of total war.

Shostakovich demands unanimity, virtuosity and emotional intelligence from his performers: qualities which the Villiers Quartet have in abundance and which are the essence both of their playing and of Nottingham’s Chamber Music Festival.



The Villiers String Quartet

Piano duo Robert Hunter and James Longford

and performers in other Festival events, including the Leonore Piano Trio and Onyx Brass

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