ENSEMBLE 360

Ensemble 360

Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford on Avon
Sunday 5 May 2024, 7.30pm

Full price: £24
Under 25s: Free

Book Tickets

Woodwind and strings balance in perfect harmony

SUK Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale ‘St. Wenceslas’ Op 35a
COLERIDGE-TAYLOR Clarinet Quintet Op 10
HOWELLS Rhapsodic Quintet Op 31
DVOŘÁK String Quartet in F major No 12 Op 96 ‘American’

Praised by The Guardian as “one of the most adaptable chamber groups in the country”, Ensemble 360 is renowned for its virtuoso performances, bold programming and engaging interpretations of music. They present a sumptuous evening of music, with masterpieces ranging from Herbert Howells’s mystical Rhapsodic Quintet to Dvořák’s profound ‘American Quartet’. At the heart of this programme, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s exquisite Clarinet Quintet is arguably the composer’s greatest achievement in chamber music.

Don’t miss the Pre-concert Supper Club.

SUK Josef, Mediation on the Old Czech Chorale

Josef Suk, a student of Antonín Dvořák and later his son-in-law, was a composer with a distinct artistic voice and strong ties to Czech musical heritage. His composition, the “Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale,” pays homage to the Bohemian patron saint, St. Wenceslas, and was written when a member of the Bohemian String Quartet to supplement the obligatory playing of the Austrian national anthem (after 1914) with a more distinctively Bohemian piece, and prayer for the wellbeing of the Czech people.

The “Meditation on an Old Czech Chorale’” is a single-movement for string quartet, which was later expanded into a version for string orchestra, adding a double bass line, and later still adapted for violin and organ. Suk‘s use of the violin as the leading voice enhances the expressive nature of the piece, allowing for moments of spiritual contemplation. The work commences with a solemn and tender introduction, featuring the initial statement of the hymn melody. Through subtle variations, this simple melody moves from serene introspection to intense and soaring passages as a recurring motif. The piece reaches a climax with the violin in its highest register, conveying a profound yearning. It gradually fades away, into tranquility.

COLERIDGE-TAYLOR Samuel, Clarinet Quintet Op.10

Allegro energico
Larghetto affettuoso
Scherzo. Allegro leggiero
Finale. Allegro agitato – Poco più moderato – Vivace

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in London and entered to Royal College of Music in 1890 to study the violin. His ability as a composer soon became apparent, and he studied composition with Stanford, becoming one of his favourite pupils. His Piano Quintet Op.1 (1893) heralded the arrival of a remarkable talent, but the Clarinet Quintet, composed in 1895, demonstrates Coleridge-Taylor at the height of his creative powers. Stanford had given his students a challenge, declaring that after Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, written in 1891, nobody would be able to escape its influence. Coleridge-Taylor couldn’t resist trying, and when Stanford saw the result he is said to have exclaimed ‘you’ve done it!’ Coleridge-Taylor took his influences not from Brahms but from another great contemporary composer: in places this work sounds like the clarinet quintet that Dvořák never wrote. That’s a mark of Coleridge-Taylor’s wonderfully fluent and assured writing. The sonata form first movement is both confident and complex, with the clarinet forming part of an intricately-woven ensemble texture. The Larghetto has a free, rhapsodic character, dominated by a haunting main theme. The Scherzo delights in rhythmic tricks while the central Trio section is more lyrical. The opening theme of the finale governs much of what follows until a recollection of the slow movement gives way to an animated coda. The first performance took place at the Royal College of Music on 10 July 1895, with George Anderson playing the clarinet. Afterwards, Stanford wrote to the great violinist Joseph Joachim describing the piece as ‘the most remarkable thing in the younger generation that I have seen.’

HOWELLS Herbert, Rhapsodic Quintet for Clarinet and Strings Op.31 

Lento, ma appassionato – A tempo, tranquillo – Piu mosso, inquieto – Doppio movimento ritmico, e non troppo allegro – Più elato – Meno mosso – Lento, assai tranquillo – Più adagio 

Herbert Howells is probably best remembered for his church music (including the famous hymn tune ‘All my hope on God is founded’ as well as several outstanding settings of service music) and for his choral masterpiece Hymnus paradisi. But he was also a gifted composer for instruments and wrote a good deal of chamber music at the start of his career. The Rhapsodic Quintet was completed in June 1919 and Howells himself said that there was ‘a mystic feeling about the whole thing’. Still, mystic feelings didn’t come without some serious hard work, and the Howells scholar Paul Spicer has drawn attention to an entry in the composer’s diary where he noted that the quintet had involved quite a lot of preparatory thinking. Howells wrote of his ‘long ponderous thoughts on problems of musical form … hours spent in an easy-chair, fire-gazing, form-thinking.’ The ‘form-thinking’ was clearly productive, since this beautifully written quintet for clarinet and strings in one movement appears to flow effortlessly from one idea to the next as well as having overall coherence. This was an early work – Howells had only recently finished his studies at the Royal College of Music with Stanford and Charles Wood – but his handling of the instruments shows tremendous assurance. Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music makes particular mention of this, describing the work as having a ‘sensitive appreciation of instrumental needs’, but there is more to it than that, since Howells also shows a great gift for unfolding long, lyrical melodies, and contrasting these with more capricious ideas. It’s this combination of fluent and idiomatic writing with memorable thematic material that led Christopher Palmer, in his biography of Howells, to call the Rhapsodic Quintet ‘an outstanding achievement’.  

DVOŘÁK Antonin, String Quartet in F Op.96 The American Quartet

Allegro ma non troppo
Lento
Molto vivace
Finale. Vivace ma non troppo

Dvořák was teaching in New York in 1893, and for his summer holiday he travelled over a thousand miles westwards, to the village of Spillville in Iowa, set in the valley of the Turkey River. It had been colonized by Czechs in the 1850s and in these congenial surroundings Dvořák quickly wrote the String Quartet in F major. On the last page of the manuscript draft, he wrote: ‘Finished on 10 June 1893, Spillville. I’m satisfied. Thanks be to God. It went quickly.’

Coming immediately after the ‘New World’ Symphony (which was to have its triumphant première in New York later in the year), the quartet has a mood that suggests something of his contentment in Spillville. Dvořák’s assistant Josef Kovařík recalled the composer’s routine: walks, composing, playing the organ for Mass and talking to locals, observing that he ‘scarcely ever talked about music and I think that was one of the reasons why he felt so happy there.’

Just how ‘American’ is the quartet? While remaining completely true to himself, Dvořák admitted that ‘as for my … F major String Quartet and the Quintet (composed here in Spillville) – I should never have written these works the way I did if I hadn’t seen America’. The first performance was given in Boston on New Year’s Day 1894 by the Kneisel Quartet.

© Nigel Simeone