VIAF 2014

Fantastic concerts by the Sheffield Academy of Music

A string ensemble from the Sheffield Academy of Music have for the first time participated in the Victoria International Arts Festival by presenting two entirely different programmes in two different venues.

The first concert was held on Thursday evening at St Augustine Church. Led by the energetic and dynamic Martin Cropper, who is also Professor of Violin at the Academy, this remarkable group of very young people (apart from Martin’s wife, Kathryn, all are students) enthralled a captivated audience with the sheer power of their playing, their intelligent performances and enjoyment. Tackling the first concert was not an easy task, a programme comprised of a Bach and Telemann concerto, another one by Mercadenate and, in an entirely different idiom, the haunting Quartet no. 8 by Shostakovich.

First on the programme was Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G Major op. 51. The difficult solo part was tackled most admirably by student James Douglas. Alternating between starkly contrasting moods – at one moment exuberant and festive at another mourning and lamenting – the young eased through the difficult finger-work and swift passages were very clear and articulated. He showed a maturity beyond his age with his interpretation of the slower movements, the initial Largo and the third one, marked Andante. Praise also goes to the very steady and reliable continuo playing by the cellists! A robust round of applause was much merited!

Next came seasoned performer Roberto Meoni, who tackled Mercadenate’s two-movement Clarinet Concerto in Bb most skilfully and intelligently. Manifesting a wide dynamic range, from a full-throated forte to a miniscule level of sound, Meoni showed his mastery and musicality throughout the performance. Worthy of mention was the delectable theme and variations second movement, where the solo instrument alternated in importance with the string ensemble, engaging in rippling, muted arpeggios against the main melody on the ensemble. A truly fantastic performance. Meoni then played Vella’s third movement of his work for solo clarinet, namely, Songs for Phaedra, as an encore. This piece, entitled Phaedra in Death is as resisting as it is vulnerable and once more, Meoni brought the dynamic level of the instrument to an almost impossibly imagined pianissimo, without in any way losing on the warm texture of his tone.  

Martin Cropper was the soloist in Bach’s demanding Concerto in E Major BWV1042. Typically Bach, this work is a monumental structure, with regard to its formal properties, and Cropper tackled it with assurance, confidence and minute attention to detail. A slight hitch occurred halfway through the opening movement when a page-turning technical fault could have ended in disaster. However, experience set in and Cropper tackled this unwarranted incident with what amounted to typical English humour.  The singing quality of the second movement was admirable and the tutti playing was co-ordinated and controlled – particularly given the fact that the ensemble was playing without a conductor!

The final piece on the programme was Shostakovich’s massive Quartet no. 8.  Playing it as a string ensemble endowed this work (originally scored for just 4 players) with an almost terrifying force, both from the point of view of tone and dynamics. The largely quiet first movement led into a frenzied, almost demonic second movement and the shift was seamless and almost natural. The lilting Allegretto was a welcome respite before the final two Largo movements once again thrust the audience into a private world largely unknown but whose message was all too clear – an indictment of the political situation that hit Russia with the onslaught of communism.

Given the very young age of the ensemble, one would have had every reason to think that this programme was more than ambitious, and indeed it was. However, they did more than justice to all the works and we look forward to this evening’s programme with high expectation!

The second concert by the Sheffield Academy of Music took place at St George’s Basilica and was under the distinguished patronage of the Hon. Minister for Justice and Culture, Dr Owen Bonnici. The big work of the evening was undoubtedly Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Taking into consideration that the four soloists for each of the seasons were students of the Academy, namely, Lucas Ferguson (Spring), Thomas Hetherington (Summer), Sarah Razlin (Autumn) and Amy Kent (Winter), with the youngest not more than 13 years of age,this was a creditable performance indeed. Special credit goes to the two continuo players who, once again, proved to be a most steady and convincing support.

Joseph Vella’s Clarinet Quintet op. 16 is an early work by the composer but one that already attests to his natural disposition towards very lovely melodies and complex contrapuntal networks. The solo clarinet was played by Roberto Meoni and instead of a string quartet, the parts were played by the whole ensemble. Meoni displayed the customary mellow tone he did the day before and, especially in the slow second movement, a very special, ethereal mood was created with the strings providing a compact harmonic texture against the haunting melody on the clarinet.

The final piece of the concert was an ebullient St Paul’s Suite by English composer Gustav Holst. This skipped along with verve and panache, bringing this delightful concert to a robust close.