REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s ‘visit to wonderland’ verdict on Living Backwards, North York Moors Chamber Music Festival

Violinist Benjamin Brunt

Living Backwards, North York Moors Chamber Music Festival, St Michael’s Church, Coxwold, August 16

IF you are scratching your head over the title above, you deserve an explanation. It comes from Lewis Carroll, whose looking-glass themes are being explored in this year’s festival, which remains North Yorkshire’s best-kept musical secret. This was the fourth of the 14 programmes that could be heard daily until August 26.

Such titles are needed since no named group is performing. We know the musical menu in advance but must wait until the start of each event to discover which of the 27 resident players are involved.

This title? You may well not have encountered Ravel rubbing shoulders with Telemann, not to mention Dvořák with Biber. Throw in an intro by Saariaho, and put everything in reverse chronological order, and you have the outline of this wonderfully eclectic afternoon programme.

Benjamin Baker, who with fellow-violinist Charlotte Scott bore the brunt of the playing, opened with a tender account of Kaija Saariaho’s solo Nocturne, which she wrote in 1994, the same year as her violin concerto. Although intended as an in memoriam for Lutoslawski, it also commemorated the composer’s own death two months ago.

As Baker walked slowly away another memorial piece began, Ravel’s violin and cello sonata to honour Debussy. All but one of its four movements reflects Debussy’s joie de vivre, as did Alena Baeva and Jamie Walton’s playing.

Their warm, weaving dialogue in the opening and skittish scherzo, rapidly alternating bowing with pizzicato, were picked up again in the zestful finale, which bubbled with bonhomie. The slow movement, however, was properly elegiac: deliberate, bleak, and hushed at the close.

Dvorak’s Terzetto in C, for two violins and viola, brought back Baker and Scott, joined by Sascha Bota on the lowest part. They revelled in its unexpected demands. The scherzo’s emphatic return after a gentler trio was but a prelude to a theme and variations that were delivered with ever-increasing panache. Here were three superb virtuosos sharing their unbridled delight in unfamiliar repertoire – almost a trademark of this festival.

Gulliver’s Travels was Telemann’s response to Swift’s widely popular satire, a five-part suite for two violins. Once again it involved Baker and Scott: their palpable rapport was essential to the success of its quick-fire conversation, especially in the teasing ‘Brobdingnagian gigue’ and the busy dance of the ‘untamed Yahoos’.

Scott remained on stage to deliver a stylish, spellbinding account of the 16th and last of Biber’s Rosary sonatas, a chaconne that is the ultimate test of the Baroque violinist. A visit to Wonderland? Definitely.

Review by Martin Dreyer