Ensemble 360

Crucible Playhouse, Sheffield
Tuesday 17 May 2022, 1.00pm

Tickets: £15
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£5 Students & Under 35s

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Past Event
Ensemble 360 group photo

SCHUMANN Marchenerzählungen (16’)
CLARKE Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale (15’)
GRIME To see the summer sky (9′)
KURTÁG Hommage à R Schumann (11’) 

Combining the soulful viola with the languid clarinet, Schumann’s four musical fairy tales is an enchanting set of miniatures that brings the picturesque to life. Rebecca Clarke’s work for clarinet and viola is alternately spectral, austere, powerful and desolate. A very different, equally expressive duo follows, exploring the extremes of musical range and possibility for violin and viola in Grime’s ‘To see the summer sky’, played by Ensemble 360’s Rachel Roberts (who first performed this work’s world premiere in 2010). Kurtág’s homage to the fanciful spirit of Schumann’s fairy tales brings us full circle.

Sheffield Chamber Music Festival runs 13–21 May 2022

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SCHUMANN Robert, Märchenerzählungen Op.132

Lebhaft, nicht zu schnell
Lebhaft und sehr markiert
Ruhiges Tempo, mit zartem Ausdruck
Lebhaft, sehr markiert

Schumann wrote his Märchenerzählungen (‘Fairy Tales’) for the unusual combination of clarinet, viola and piano in October 1853. Whether he chose these instruments with Mozart’s ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio in mind is uncertain, though it was the only other significant work for that particular ensemble. The pieces are haunting and enigmatic: if these miniatures were intended to depict particular stories, Schumann never said. Soon after finishing Märchenerzälungen he had a catastrophic breakdown and spent the last years of his life in an asylum. The pieces are dedicated to Albert Dietrich, who studied with Schumann and was a friend of Brahms. All three collaborated on the F-A-E Sonata for Joseph Joachim.

© Nigel Simeone 2015

CLARKE Rebecca, Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale

After studies at the Royal College of Music (where her teachers included Stanford for composition and Lionel Tertis for the viola), Rebecca Clarke began her career as a viola player in Sir Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra, one of London’s first female professional orchestral players. After moving to the United States, Clarke completed her best-known work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano, in 1919. It tied for first place (with a piece by Ernest Bloch) in a composition prize offered by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and Clarke followed this with a Piano Trio in 1921. Coolidge commissioned Clarke’s Rhapsody for Cello and Piano in 1923. After returning to London in 1924, Clarke became a busy chamber music performer with less time to devote to composition. When war broke out in 1939, Clarke was in the United States visiting her brothers, one of whom was Hans Clarke, a distinguished biochemist. With the war at its height, she could not return to Britain and in the end she settled in New York. There, by chance, she met James Friskin, a pianist and composer she had known in their student days. They married in 1944 and Clarke stopped composing.

The Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale is one of her last works, written in 1941. It was dedicated to Clarke’s brother Hans and his wife Fietzchen. In an interview in 1978, Rebecca Clarke described the Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale as ‘very simple’ and admitted that she didn’t offer it to any publishers: it ‘came at a time when I was just not bothering about showing things to publishers.’ This was partly due to modesty, but it also reveals something of the obstacles Clarke had to overcome in order to achieve the recognition she deserved (it was eventually published in 2000). Writing for clarinet and viola without piano accompaniment was clearly a challenge Clarke relished and the ingenuity of the dialogue between the two instruments is testimony to her inventiveness and skill. The work is in three sections: the quiet sobriety of Prelude (marked Andante semplice) leads to an angular Allegro vigoroso followed by a rather melancholy Pastorale, marked Poco lento. The quality of the musical ideas here reveals a composer of real character whose career had been blighted by discouragement and depressive illness.

© Nigel Simone 2018

GRIME Helen, To see the summer sky

To see the summer sky for Violin and Viola falls into four movements. The first movement opens with the two instruments sounding almost as one playing very high, glassy harmonics. Gradually, an expressive viola solo emerges, with both instruments descending to their lower ranges. A livelier quasi scherzando solo for violin accompanied by viola pedal notes leads to a chorale like passage, the violin at the top of its range, whilst the viola is at its lowest. The movement ends with the two instruments coming together once again on a unison Bb and fades away almost as it has begun, but this time in the husky lower registers.

The second movement is much faster and opens with a downward flurry for both instruments. A continuous pizzicato line for viola is interrupted by more violent passages in the violin. The two instruments come together in a dance-like passage before the roles are reversed. Finally an ecstatic melody surfaces in the viola and is later continued in the violin before the movement closes with the spiky figures of its opening, the two instruments ending in unison.

The third movement encompasses is the most delicate and still music of the piece. After a very tranquil opening, an expressive violin melody is accompanied by a gentle rocking figure in the viola. Tentative at first, intensity and speed gather until the violin reaches stratospheric heights. Both of the instruments play at the extremes of their registers before moving to common ground for a more lively textural passage. This is followed by a passionate reminder of the movement’s opening, gradually fading away to nothing.

The piece ends with a Moto Perpetuo. The instruments begin by dovetailing a single line which develops into two strands before a more violent section appears, punctuated by strident double stops. Both instruments have slightly manic solo episodes before the movement quickly dies away in the single line of its opening.

© Helen Grime

KURTÁG György, Hommage à R Schumann for clarinet, viola and piano, Op. 15d 

Molto semplice piano e legato 
Feroce agitato 
Calmo scorrevole 
Adagio poco andante  

Kurtág scored his Hommage à R. Sch. for the same instrumental combination as Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, Op. 132, completing the work in 1990. Each of the movements has a subtitle, and most of them refer to the imaginary characters that were such a significant spur to Schumann’s imagination. The first – whimsical and capricious – is headed ‘Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler’s Curious Pirouettes’, a reference to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s character who inspired Kreisleriana. Next is a quiet canon subtitled ‘Eusebius: the delimited circle’, alluding to the introspective Eusebius figure in Schumann’s own writings. After this comes ‘Florestan’s lips tremble in anguish once more’, evoking Florestan, Eusebius’s outgoing counterpart. The fourth movement has a subtitle in Hungarian which translates as ‘I was a cloud, now the sun is shining’, a quotation from a poem by Attila Jószef (1905–1937). It is followed by ‘In the Night’, an urgent and restless night piece. The sixth movement is much the longest, subtitled ‘Meister Raro discovers Guillaume de Machaut’. Raro was the moderating influence in Schumann’s imaginary brotherhood, between the extremes of Florestan and Eusebius. Here the music resembles a solemn processional recalling both the Medieval spirit and technical procedures of Machaut.   

© Nigel Simeone, 2022