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Cambridge Music Festival: Academy of St Martin in the Fields

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The Cambridge Music Festival continued its spring programme by welcoming The Academy of St Martin in the Fields (in Chamber Ensemble form) to the Cambridge Union Debating Chamber on Tuesday evening for a performance of works by J.S.Bach, Sally Beamish and Mendelssohn.

The concert began with a movement from Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’, a collection of keyboard works on a theme given to Bach, somewhat mischievously as a test, by Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Frederick’s court was an exceptionally musical one. He himself was an accomplished flautist, and Bach’s son CPE Bach was his personal harpsichordist.

In 1747 Bach, with his son Wilhelm Friedeman, visited Frederick at Potsdam and was asked to improvise one particular fugue on a given theme which, having completed it some weeks later, he gave as his musical offering to Frederick.

This was an immensely challenging composition (and needless to say Bach passed Frederick’s test), a fugue in 6 parts [‘Ricercar a 6’], now known by the first letters of the complete inscription on the composition,‘Regis Iusso Cantio . . . etc’ (‘the theme given by the king’), ricercar being also a well-known musical genre of the time.

On the same visit, when King Frederick introduced Bach to a new instrument, the fortepiano, it marked a significant moment in musical history as Bach, already a notable keyboardist for harpsichord and organ, would have played this ancestor of the piano, for him a personal first.

Review of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Picture: iStock.com.
Review of The Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Picture: iStock.com.

The Academy’s beautiful and accomplished performance was an adaptation for strings of this sombre and inventive composition, regarded as the most famous in the ‘Musical Offering’ collection. Imagine with one hand keeping 6 balls in the air at the same time while giving each one an individual trajectory. This might give some idea of a fugue in 6 parts, only the fugue is a vastly more difficult exercise.

The musicians followed with the Partita for String Octet by the celebrated and versatile British composer, Sally Beamish. This work was commissioned by The Academy in 2019 and reveals as the source of its inspiration the counterpoint of Bach and Mendelssohn’s Octet.

It’s in 3 parts, Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne, acknowledging movements familiar in many of Bach's works, and is a complicated piece which calls for split-second timing and where each member of the octet is allotted a prominent passage among the various monotones, quiverings, pizzicati, hesitations, silences and dissonances which collectively have a mesmerising effect on an audience.

The final performance was Mendelssohn’s String Octet in E flat op. 20, an astonishingly mature work to have been written by a 16-year-old on the threshold of his career. The composition, from the opening Allegro with its beautiful melody, moves to an affectingly lyrical (sometimes tragic almost) Andante, followed by the famous Scherzo where the strings chase each other at full tilt in a kind of moto perpetuo.

The, at times playful, final movement (Presto) alludes to a passage from the previous one, as well as to the Hallelujah Chorus from ‘Messiah’ by Handel, a composer who was a strong influence on Mendelssohn. (‘and he shall reign’). The same passage occurs in Beamish’s Partita in very slow mode in her gentle fugue, as well as in the Chaconne but in a more rumbustious form.

Needless to say the renowned string octet held its appreciative audience spellbound throughout the programme, adjusting its talents and techniques to three logically chosen works, so like and yet unlike each other at the same time, and all of them impeccably performed.

The group returned to encore with a short piece by that master of melody, Edvard Grieg, entitled ‘The Last Spring’.

On the level of pure performance alone, this has to be among the best I’ve ever seen. Leader Tomo Keller was a phenomenon on the violin, and the group as a whole a powerhouse of virtuosity. To watch how members of the ensemble visibly appreciated the talents of their counterparts too was a joy to behold.


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