Review: The Artemisia Quintet at St Peter’s, Petersfield

The Artemisia Ensemble, St Peter’s Church, Petersfield, June 16

The benefits of Music in Portsmouth were never better demonstrated than when I noticed this event there yesterday, just in time. Petersfield is on the outskirts of my local orbit – anything further away is classified as a holiday – but it was unquestionably worth risking Sunday public transport for, which was fine.

I’ve been thinking for a while that string quartets are something I’ve been missing out on but a quintet is even better. With two cellos, much more is possible.

Ethel Smyth’s Quintet in E is opus 1 and it’s a struggle to think of another composer that arrived so complete. Even more extraordinary that the idea of a female composer capable of such a broad vision generated from the theme of the opening Allegro was in her day regarded as a curiosity. Its confidence and pastoral evocations were augmented by Artemisia’s faultless performance in rewarding acoustic surroundings.

Still airy and outdoors, cello led into the next movement with violin and Suzanne Evans, ever the cohesion in the midfield holding role on viola, following until it accelerated into dance. The Adagio is lachrymose and sorrowing before the Allegro finale, however much Smyth had in common with her nearer contemporaries, Brahms and Dvorak, was for me more Bach and whether or not this Ensemble play this piece again in the area, it’s a certainty to be added to the CD shelves here.

That was a rare treat but this concert was tremendous value with that 35 minutes followed by Schubert’s 50 minutes of Quintet in C, D. 956, contrastingly being from the end of his short career rather than from the beginning of Ethel’s long one. The immaculate sound was carried forward into Jessica Garner’s pizzicato cello under the serenity of the other quartet who introduced a hint of ‘sturm’ if not ‘drang’ before, in what was a captivating performance throughout, the Adagio stopped all the clocks in what had to be the highlight if highlight there had to be. Jessica provided the bass while Sara Deborah Timossi’s violin and the sustained vln, vla and clo of Catherine Lett, Suzanne and Helen Downham made for the most affecting and gorgeous meditation. They are every bit a ‘unit’, each contributing beautifully to their shared achievement.

…from which we were awakened by the rumbustuous, tutti high spirits of a scherzo, presto shindig that bracketed a reprise of the gravity as if to suggest that Schubert knew all along what lay beneath such levity. The Allegretto to finish was orchestral and vivacious and it’s a shame that, if in doubt, standing ovations are issued sparingly. This was borderline but it sometimes seems to me as if on such occasions some of the audience might be advertising their appreciation too much and I wouldn’t want to do that and so I generally don’t. But that was high quality and will remain in the memory long after many other very good things have faded.

David Green



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