REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Sacconi Quartet & Tim Lowe, BMS York, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, York, October 1

Sacconi Quartet’s Ben Hancox (violin), Robin Ashwell (cello), Hannah Dawson (violin) and Cara Berridge (cello): Performed Schubert’s incomparable String Quartet in C and York composer Nicola LeFanu’s newly commissioned Quartet, both a celebration and a reflection. Picture: Emilie Bailey

FORTUNE favours the brave. Back in May when the Covid outlook was far from clear, the British Music Society of York (BMS) took the courageous decision to go ahead with their 100th season in October. It had already been delayed a year.

This quintet – a string quartet with added cello – was the happy result, in a members-only evening last Friday.

Schubert’s incomparable String Quintet in C was preceded by the world premiere of an engaging new BMS commission for the same forces from Nicola LeFanu, one of the society’s two vice-presidents.

Titled simply Quintet and lasting some 20 minutes, it lives up to the composer’s typically lucid programme-note as a combination of celebration and reflection, which are mirrored in two contrasting themes. The faster of these provides a rondo motif while the slower inspires its diversions.

The device works excellently. The two cellos generally operate as a pensive pair, while the higher strings interrupt, sometimes intensely, always excitedly, often preferring a catchy iambic rhythm when not adding twinkling filigrees. But all of the instruments have something individual to say.

At the centre of the work is a solemn chorale, after which the second cello has a broad, yearning passage – which Tim Lowe attacked with relish. This is the signal for mounting urgency that is capped by a return to the opening cello duet at the close. Did I detect here the semitone with which Schubert so determinedly ends his quintet?

Second cellist Tim Lowe: “The engine” in Schubert’s String Quartet in C

The Sacconi and Lowe brought fervent application to their task, clearly enjoying its challenge. The music makes real sense on a first hearing, but would also repay deeper listening. It certainly commends itself as a partner to the Schubert.

Any players faced with one of the towering monuments of Western music will feel humbled. This manifests itself in different ways. Here there was a studied intensity to the first two movements of the Schubert, before an earthier Scherzo and a finale infused with the spirit of dance.

The mood of anticipation in the introduction was satisfied when the Allegro got going, but the repeat of the exposition was much tauter (and rhythms wittier too) than its first statement.

Second cellist Lowe was the engine, as in several places later, for the development section. He also ignited more fire in the middle of the slow movement – although the pregnant rests that followed were a tutti effort, before the heart of the Adagio hovered beautifully again.

In the Scherzo, the ensemble really began to relax, so much so that its Trio almost ground to a halt, it was so leisurely. In the circumstances, the return of the Scherzo came almost as a relief. 

The finale, so often a let-down in this work, was anything but: there was even an element of mystery before the main theme returned. Doubt lingered as to whether all five players shared the same overall vision for this piece. But the BMS is back in business. Hurrah!

Review by Martin Dreyer

Never too late for York Late Music’s cutting-edge contemporary concerts to start again

Ian Pace: Regular innovative performer on piano at York’s Late Music concert series, returning on December 4

YORK’S Late Music programme of contemporary music returns from pandemic lockdown with two concerts on Saturday at St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York.

As ever, this celebration of new music in York will turn the spotlight on compositions of the 20th and 21st centuries, premiering new works and commissions aplenty on the first Saturday of each month from October to December 2021 and February to June 2022, with two concerts per day at 1pm and 7.30pm.

“We moved the programme to start in October because we’ve missed a year of concerts through the pandemic and could not re-start until now because of the small size of the chapel,” says concert administrator and York composer Steve Crowther.

In a late change to the musicians, but not to the programme, baritone Alistair Donaghue and pianist Polly Sharpe replace Robert Rice and William Vann for Saturday’s opening afternoon concert, an exploration of 21st century British songs, featuring settings from the album Songs Now: British Songs Of The 21st Century and the NMC Songbook.

“Unfortunately, Robert is ill, but we’re very grateful that Alistair and Polly have agreed to step in to do the same programme.”

In Saturday’s second concert, at 7.30pm, the Gemini ensemble give first performances of both their commission of Sadie Harrison’s Fire In Song and Morag Galloway’s It’s Getting Hot In Here, complemented by Peter Maxwell Davies’s Economies Of Scale and works by Steve Crowther and Philip Grange, including his Homage To Chagall.

Pianist Duncan Honeybourne: Lockdown compositions on November 6

On November 6, in the afternoon concert, pianist Duncan Honeybourne presents pieces from time spent productively in stay-at-home 2020: Contemporary Piano Soundbites: Composers In Lockdown 2020. The works have been featured on BBC Radio 3, greeted by presenter Tom Service as a “dazzling explosion of creativity”.

For the evening, Elysian Singers’ director Sam Laughton has devised a programme that pairs a contemporary work with an earlier piece with words from the same poet or source. For example, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Rachmaninov’s settings of All Night Vigil or James Macmillan, Thea Musgrave and Benjamin Britten’s settings of words by Herrick.

These will be complemented by new works by regular Late Music composers David Power and David Lancaster and Tom Armstrong, formerly of the University of York, and a motet by Ivor Gurney, published in 2017, fully 92 years after it was composed.  “It was just sitting in a drawer,” reveals Steve.

Nick Williams and Tim Brooks combine to present York Music Centre and the new Yorkshire ensemble Spelk’s afternoon recital on December 4. “It’s great to be working with Nick and Tim,” says Steve, looking forward to Brooks’s commissioned piece for young people, And Another Thing. In the second half, Spelk perform music by John Cage, Andriessen and Stravinsky and a new Murphy McCaleb work.

In that evening’s closing concert of 2021, stalwart Ian Pace performs his 13th, or maybe his 14th, Late Music piano recital, this one entitled The Art Of Fugue. “In 1845, Schumann discovered his passion for composing fugues,” says Pace. “This recital explores the threads that connect and resonate through a form that straddles three centuries.”

Framed by two Prelude and Fugues by J S Bach, Pace will be performing works by Shostakovich and Schumann, plus new works by Anthony Adams and Jenny Jackson. “You don’t associate Ian with playing Bach, so it will be interesting to hear his interpretation,” says Steve.

Soprano Anna Snow: 100 Second Songs on March 5

The 2022 programme opens on February 5 with pianist Jakob Fichert’s The Character Piece Throughout Music History (1pm) and Living Songs, soprano Jessica Summers and pianist Jelena Makarova’s evening of Songs of Love and Exile.

Next up, on March 5, will be clarinet player Jonathan Sage (afternoon) and soprano Anna Snow and pianist Kate Ledger’s evening of 100 Second Songs, featuring a patchwork of musical miniatures by the likes of Nicola LeFanu, Sadie Harrison, Tarik O’Regan and James Else.

Bass Stuart O’Hara and pianist Ionna Koullepou perform new settings of York and regional poetry by York composers on the afternoon of April 2. That evening, Bingham String Quartet play Beethoven, Schnittke, LeFanu and Tippett pieces.

Spelk return on May 7 with a rare chance to hear John Cage’s complete Living Room Music at 1pm, followed by Delta Saxophone Quartet’s Dedicated To You…But You Weren’t Listening, including Soft Machine interpretations.

The season ends with soprano Amanda Crawley and pianist Josephine Peach’s Sounds Of The Unexpected (1pm) and Trilogy Ensemble’s evening of Debussy, Libby Larsen, Yu-Liang Chong, William Matthias and more.

Lunchtime concerts costs £5, evening concerts, £12/concessions £10, online at latemusic.org or on the door.