Nottingham Chamber Music Festival
Nottingham Chamber Music Festival 2023
Various venues in Nottingham city centre
July 13-16 2023
By William Ruff, July 18, 2023

It’s hard to believe but occasionally you bump into someone who says they love music in general but are nervous about chamber music.  They seem to think it’s all about Hinge-and-Bracket lookalikes surrounded by potted aspidistras, sawing away at their instruments and sending their audiences to sleep.  Anyone who labours under such misconceptions clearly hasn’t visited the Nottingham Chamber Festival.  If they had, they would have witnessed magic being performed before their very ears and eyes.  Not the sort of magic involving crowds and disappearing buses, but the sort of close magic which creates a deep sense of wonder because it involves us so intimately.

Carmen Flores, the Festival Director, is an artist of rare vision, always searching for new ways of opening minds to the potential of small-scale music-making.  Each Festival so far has been highly distinctive, this year’s being no exception.  Of seven events over four days only one could be said to be even remotely traditional in content and format: the others trod new ground in various exciting ways.

Take the opening event: an exuberant, joyous string quartet by Felix Mendelssohn, presented in a way which allowed the audience not only to go on an x-ray tour of its intricacies but also to experience it within the context of the composer’s extraordinary, multi-talented life.  This illustrated talk plus full performance happened at Delilah’s Restaurant in Nottingham’s city centre, the whole evening refreshing body and soul in ways which, as often happens with live music-making, could not have been predicted beforehand.  The context and environment made the playing of the Villiers Quartet even more thrilling than usual, so intimate was the performing space.

The following day was dominated by Beethoven’s op.130, which, like so much of Beethoven’s late compositions, appears to many to be the Mount Everest of musical aspiration.  Again the presentation of this formidable work was unusual: first a morning session in which local string players were coached by the Villiers Quartet to reach the summit by themselves.  And then in the evening the Villiers gave a searching performance of the quartet, although not as anyone would ever have heard it before, with each of the work’s six movements interleaved by the writing of Lord Byron, brought to dramatic life by the Playhouse’s Martin Berry.

Festival Saturday provided a rich feast for the musically adventurous. At coffee time in St Peter’s you could have heard the critically acclaimed Tailleferre Ensemble, an all-female group of musicians whose aim is to promote women in music.  The only familiar name on their programme was Ethyl Smyth; the rest were new discoveries – such as Metamorphoses by Jenni Brandon, a work for the unusual combination of two oboes and piano, music which evolves, embodying life’s quest for that elusive concept: one’s true self.

Shortly afterwards at the Contemporary Gallery a duo called Rarescale produced some astonishing sounds on various flutes and clarinets, especially the huge bass instruments which they coaxed into doing all sorts of weirdly fascinating sonic tricks, producing breathy pulses of sound at one moment followed by alien-sounding trills and clicks the next.  Just when you thought that you must have heard every sort of sound possible from these instruments, their players, Carla Rees and Sarah Watts showed that wind instruments can even be made to produce two notes at the same time – if the right magic is used.

The sounds produced by the Maggini Quartet on Saturday evening in St Mary’s were much more familiar: early Beethoven (Op. 18 no 3) and Dvorak’s American Quartet, both played with insight, sensitivity and the utmost refinement.  However, even in this concert there would have been a new discovery for most people: the String Quartet No 2 by Alan Rawsthorne, a work of great inventiveness and architectural strength.  The introductions provided by members of the Quartet were succinct, highly informative and very much in the spirit of a Festival which has done so much to reach out to its audiences.

The children’s concert with which this year’s Festival ended was the opposite of being an add-on at the end of a fizzing few days.  Instead it seemed like a very necessary destination, reaching out to the future, to tomorrow’s audience for classical music.  The five members of MishMash Ensemble combine high-energy musicianship with all the patience and tact of expert children’s entertainers.  Involving their young audience at every point in the hour-long show, they introduced them to how music works.  In their hands the instruments became magical characters capable of jumping from one mood to another in the blink of an eye.  There were lots of questions afterwards from the excited youngsters: fertile seeds had clearly been sown.

All this diversity means that chamber music is hard to define.  Perhaps underlying everything described here is the idea of musical conversations between friends who listen as intelligently as they play.  Carmen Flores and her colleagues are passionate about their art and such passion is contagious.  It’s no wonder that appetites are already whetted for next year’s Nottingham Chamber Music Festival.