REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Pocket Sinfonia, NCEM, York, December 9

Pocket Sinfonia

York Early Music Christmas Festival: Pocket Sinfonia, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 9

THIS was a delightful late-afternoon entertainment, made all the more so by being unexpected (there was a further performance later in the evening, as is happening with most of the concerts in the festival).

Only four years old, Pocket Sinfonia is a quartet built around Emil Duncumb’s fortepiano. The other players cover flute, violin and cello. They specialise in 19th century transcriptions of classical music for larger forces and here included a Mozart piano concerto and a Haydn symphony.

If that sounds unexciting, think again. We have perhaps been too prissy, even purist, about scaled-down versions of larger pieces. Covid has hastened a revision of that idea. Smaller groups have had to tackle bigger works, if only to ensure social distancing. Results have been gently reassuring.

But enough of the mechanics. Essentially what we had was a piano quartet, with flute and violin taking turns to play the top part. It made for an intimate sound, made more so by the relatively introverted fortepiano (as opposed to the modern pianoforte) and the use of a wooden flute, which is less incisive than its modern counterpart and thus more mellow in a small ensemble.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, K.491, in Hummel’s transcription, took a short time to adjust to. For a start, the fortepiano joined the opening tutti, which would not normally have involved the soloist. But the intimate sound worked its magic and compelled attention. Where we would have expected bold dialogue, we had soloist and supporting trio sharing confidences. In short, it was akin to hearing a new piece.

Duncumb was exceptionally nimble-fingered. It was part of the style in the 19th century to decorate solo lines more than happens today, partly to counteract the quicker ‘decay’ – dying away of sound – of the fortepiano. The extra ornamentation in the slow movement especially seemed quite natural rather than grafted on for display. The finale’s set of variations grew in impatience and weight, and the closing accelerando was exciting indeed.

Now we had a lull with a transcription by the group’s violinist, Eleanor Corr, of a Mozart dance, Der Schlittenfahrt (The Sleigh Ride), complete with occasional bells (which might have been a touch more jingly). But it was just the kind of setting you might have heard at a Viennese court ball (or even coffee-house) in his own day, a tasty bonbon.

The third last of Haydn’s London symphonies, No 102 in B flat (mysteriously described in the programme as ‘The Miracle’, although that is actually No 96) was given in Clementi’s superb arrangement. We missed only the timpani in a development section of thrilling power.

Alex Rolton’s reliable cello came to the fore briefly in the slow movement – adapted by Haydn from a piano trio – and Rosie Bowker’s flute took an eloquent lead in the closing rondo. The group mined Haydn’s witty gaps here to the full.

Early music has come a long way since it dealt solely with mediaeval and baroque music and forced audiences to endure anaemic noises and excruciating intonation in the name of ‘authenticity’ (I exaggerate). Just how far was proved by Pocket Sinfonia’s skill and sensitivity. I hope they will make an early return to York.

Review by Martin Dreyer