Derby Assembly Rooms has been out of action, for over seven years now, following a fire in the plant room. Plans are underway for a new building on another site, but meanwhile a small flexible temporary venue has been erected in the Market Place. It was here - Performance Marquee, Market Place, Derby, UK, 6 October 2021 - that an ensemble of principals from Sinfonia Viva - string players Sophie Rosa, Philip Gallaway, Richard Muncey and Deirdre Bencsik, and clarinettist Chris Swann - presented a programme comprising two chamber music rarities and a popular favourite. (I did raise an eyebrow at seeing Chris Swann described, in the printed programme, as the 'soloist'; there are no soloists in chamber music - it's all about working as an ensemble.)
Hugely admired in her day but neglected since, composer, violinist and singer Maddalena Lombardi-Sirmen has been attracting more attention lately. The concert began with the fourth of the six string quartets she published in Paris in 1769. Like all except No 5 it is in just two movements. To call it charming is not to damn it with faint praise but to recognise its real qualities. The account of the first movement was all freshness and elegance, full of conversational give and take, followed by engagingly dapper playing in the minuet that followed.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has also been gaining a firmer place in the repertoire. His Clarinet Quintet of 1897 may be a student work, but his command of technique was already sophisticated enough to produce a vigorous, rhythmically fluid first movement full of motivic ingenuity; no wonder his teacher, Stanford, was impressed. All this came across in Sinfonia Viva's energetic performance, while the second movement was taken at an amiable, gentle amble. There was more rhythmic subtlety in the third movement, skipping and hopping, with even a touch of swing; the players differentiated the song-like Trio clearly but without needing to labour the point.
It was through his admiration for Dvořák that Coleridge-Taylor neatly side-stepped the challenge in Stanford's comment that no-one writing a clarinet quintet after Brahms's would be able to avoid its influence. The fourth movement is perhaps where the Czech composer's presence is strongest, but Coleridge-Taylor is still very much his own person. The players gave it all the vitality it needed, and made the sudden, brief darkening towards the end deeply poignant, before racing off to the finish.
The conversational tone was maintained in Mozart's Clarinet Quintet. In the first movement, particularly, the players gave the impression that we were eavesdropping on a domestic performance. Their gentle, intimate way with the second movement was nicely contrasted with a brisk account of the third - it's always good to hear a performance of a classical minuet you could feel you actually dance to - while the second trio section had something of the rustic quality we normally associate with Haydn. The variations making up the finale were well characterised: the theme and variation 1 were engagingly bouncy, and in No 2 the racing inner parts were particularly ear-catching, No 3 was poignant, the fourth bubbled away merrily, and the players went deeply into the introspective fifth variation. Finally came a reminder that Mozart was never far from his Italian comic opera roots.
For an encore, Sinfonia Viva's Deputy Chief Executive Matthew Lax produced a highly effective clarinet-and-strings transcription of Gershwin's Promenade, given a reading both high-stepping and nicely laid back at the same time.
Copyright © 18 October 2021