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Highgate International Chamber Music Festival (Susan Elkin reviews)

20 November, St Michael’s Church, Highgate

This imaginatively programmed chamber concert opened and closed with substantial works (Beethoven String Trio in G Op 9 no 1 and Schubert Piano Quintet in A D.667 Op 114 ‘Trout’) and sandwiched other slighter – but interestingly varied – pieces in the middle. It meant that we heard seven talented musicians in a range of contexts including duets which showcased a great deal of pretty stunning virtuosity.

Kenneh-Mason, as we’re rapidly realising, can play anything and wow an audience with it. If he gave us a one octave G major scale he’d make it sing. His rendering, in this concert, of Bloch’s Prayer from Jewish Life (immaculately accompanied by Irina Botan) brought out all the mournfully, soulfully evocative minor key richness in the piece and I loved the way he leaned on that dramatic quarter tone moment just before the end.

He and Ashok Klouda had fun with the South American dance rhythms and that catchy refrain in Jose Elizondo’s Autumn in Buenos Aires for two cellos too – lots of smiling eye contact and evident pleasure both in music and in working together.

It’s also good, to hear a live performance of Mahler’s 1876  single movement A Minor piano quartet written while he was still a student. It’s an evocative piece, very familiar from radio but I don’t recall ever hearing it in concert before. It was played here with lots of youthful emotion exactly as the young Mahler probably intended.

The Beethoven trio, with which the concert opened  is, of course, a pretty little gem. I admired the handling of  incisive contrasts in dynamic and tempi, especially in the Allegro con Brio which were well supported by the acoustic in the cavernous Victorian space of St Michael’s Church. The concert was sold out and the church full to the rafters so all those bodies softened the echo rather well. Another high spot in the trio was the finely judged melodic weaving by the first violin (Alexander Sitkovetsky) in the Adagio Cantabile.

And so to the utter joy of the Trout quintet with Simon Callaghan on piano and the very charismatic Chi-chi Nwanoku reading her double bass part from an iPad and dancing her way communicatively though the music. I admired the apparently effortless, graceful work in the variations which comprise the  famous andantino – especially Alexander Sitovetsky on violin. This lovely performance was also graced by an exceptionally slick scherzo.

The gallery at St Michael’s is cursed by some of the most uncomfortable seating it has ever been my misfortune to spend time in. Fortunately the quality and exuberance of the music superseded it – mostly. How about some reserved ground floor seating for the press next time?

First published by Lark Reviews:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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