The retirement of The Lindsay Quartet in 2005 left a blot on the musical landscape, especially in Sheffield, where they were resident for three decades at The Crucible. Replacing them must have been no mean feat, but Ensemble 360 stepped into their shoes very successfully on the group's formation in 2005. Since then, they've presented numerous concerts all over the country, and as often as possible they do their concerts 'in the round' (hence the '360' in the title). Their aim is to break down the boundaries of chamber music, which can often be a forbidding and formal institution. They work with local schools, are affiliated to the Department of Music at Sheffield University, where they engage in chamber music coaching, and even perform regularly in a local pub.
All of that said, these are very serious musicians, and one of their most attractive aspects is the fact that they consist of eleven musicians, bridging the gap between the traditional quartet and orchestral ensembles. Currently, they have five wind players, a pianist, a double bassist and the Elias String Quartet. They've performed in Wigmore Hall, but it's commendable that they're committed to bringing world-class music to North-East England.
Ensemble 360's repertoire includes everything from Mozart to Brahms, and they also have a regular schedule of new commissions, but their latest CD presents two works by just one composer, Beethoven. Conventional this choice may be for a chamber ensemble, but there's nothing conventional about the quality of the performances. From start to last, the Septet in E flat, Op.20, and the Serenade in D, Op.25, provide a thoroughly satisfying experience for the mind and heart.
The Septet is, of course, one of Beethoven's finest contributions to the genre, and what comes across in Ensemble 360's performance is a sense of the intricacy of the composition. The composer came to resent the work's popularity, in fact, but who could resist its charms when it's so brilliantly played as it is here?
In the first movement, the contrasts between the thick droning chords in the strings and the more legato material are strongly defined, thanks most especially to the players' admirably wide dynamic range. The interplay between the violinist (Sara Bitlloch) and winds (Matthew Hunt, clarinet; Peter Whelan, bassoon; Naomi Atherton, French horn) is infectious, too, and the increasing textural interplay is matched by a bold attach on all sides.
This gives way to the clarinet's lyrical colours in the slow movement, where the string line is more detached; the bassoon's contribution is poignant, and the mixture of simmering tension and sharp control of line (the spacing of the chords is impeccable) renders the performance very fine indeed. Equally good is the jolly minuet, where the crisp articulation of all concerned reminds us of the importance of the dance gesture in this composition, while the tasteful rubati carried out by the string players in the fourth movement are almost too well-co-ordinated to be believed.
Similarly, the virtuosic scherzo features some impressive jumping around the registers, while the interplay between strings and woodwind sharpens the characterisation. Praise, too, is due to Atherton for the warmth of playing during the horn calls. Then in the finale, the seething andante gives way to a manic presto in which the violin inevitably stands out with the bravura cadenza writing. The dialogue between violin and viola is also contagious, while Marie Bittloch's cello deserves praise for her sensitive accompaniment.
The other work on the disc is the less well-known Serenade in D, which features only the trio of violin, viola and flute. In some ways, I must confess the piece receives even more of my admiration since it demands that the composer create a full texture from fewer instruments. Imagine writing six movements of contrasting material for only three basic instruments, lasting over twenty minutes in total! Beethoven's invention comes to the fore throughout Ensemble 360's performance, in which the composer and the listener are served in equal measure.
Guy Eshed is the flautist for the performance, and a talented musician he is too. His rich tone is ideal for the work, not least in the first movement where he brings out the cheekiness of the writing in the high tessitura. Without a cello, Beethoven has to employ the viola's lower register very carefully in the Serenade, and Martin Saving is commensurately careful in participating both in the delineation of the bass line and the interplay with the two higher instruments.
The sonority of the flute's line on top of the fast-moving strings in the second movement is also impressive, while the colours the musicians bring out in the major/minor key clashes in the third movement are beautifully nuanced. The strings' warmth of tone in the Andante's chords and the precision of attach in the dotted movements of the Allegro scherzando are other outstanding elements of their performance. To cap it all, the finale mixes tension and laughter, and the collegiality of the musicians comes across particularly well.
In short, this is a highly desirable CD, and I can only hope for more releases from the group in the near future.
Review: Beethoven's Mass in C (LSO Live)
Review: Beethoven Cello Sonatas (Hyperion)
Interview: Phil Grabsky talks about his documentary In Search of Beethoven
Review: The Artemis Quartet plays Beethoven String Quartets