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Review: 12 Ensemble at Cambridge Music Festival

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The first concert of the Cambridge Spring Music Festival, ‘Death & the Maiden’, took place at West Road Concert Hall on Monday evening (March 7) and featured the celebrated, un-conducted, 12 Ensemble, a group of youthful, super-talented string players whose repertoire typically combines works both historical and modern.

Monday’s programme was no exception. Advertised (appropriately on the eve of International Women’s Day) as an exploration of ‘aspects that reflect the feminine experience’, it began with a reverential antiphon to the Virgin Mary, ‘O Frondens Virga’ (‘O leafy branch’) by the 12th Century Benedictine monastic, Hildegard von Bingen, a poet, composer, natural philosopher and visionary whose work has only in comparatively recent times begun to receive a just recognition.

12 Ensemble performed at West Road Concert Hall.
12 Ensemble performed at West Road Concert Hall.

Hildegard’s music is meant to demonstrate not only its divine inspiration, but also intended to suggest that music is in itself the highest form of human activity. To listen to the 12’s ‘O Frondens Virga’ was just about as near as one gets to experiencing the soul of the heavenly spheres, the chorus of angels. The Ensemble’s haunting delivery of this devotional music from the very distant past revealed its timelessness as well as its transcendence, its beauty and complexity.

One of the themes of International Women’s Day 2022 is mitigating climate change and building a sustainable future, something which would have interested Hildegard herself who, in addition to her many occupations, also compiled encyclopaedic works on natural science and the healing arts.

Bringing the concert programme into the present day, the Ensemble continued with a deeply felt performance of British composer Anna Clyne’s ‘Within her Arms’, a personal elegiac piece on the death of her mother, her meditation on grief and her search for consolation in bereavement.

The elegy’s different stages are punctuated by a droning bass. It opens with keening strings and continues with some profoundly soulful passages, employing different kinds of acoustic techniques including brief meaningful silences.

Replacing the immediacy of grief comes a new vibrancy and sense of resurgence where all the strings play echoingly together. The work draws to its conclusion with a return once more to loss as it bestows its quiet final benediction on the departed soul.

The first concert of the Cambridge Spring Music Festival, ‘Death & the Maiden’, took place at West Road Concert Hall
The first concert of the Cambridge Spring Music Festival, ‘Death & the Maiden’, took place at West Road Concert Hall

The concert took its title from the one given to Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, and the 12 Ensemble’s was a string orchestra arrangement of it. This notable work, both passionate, puzzling and open-ended, takes the form of a ‘dialogue’ between life and death.

Are we to assume that the violent and tempestuous passages are representative of Death the protagonist, while the more lyrical ones represent the Maiden? Or is perhaps she the defiant one, and the quieter moments point to the figure of Death in which he is inviting her to succumb to his blandishments?

This struggle is usually transmitted to the four members of a quartet and is highly visible in their close effortful physical movements in performance. The 12 Ensemble’s orchestral arrangement was delivered by the string players standing not seated (apart from three of its players), and had allotted a part to a double-bass which contributed a new type of depth to a composition the Ensemble performed with a vigour and collective musicianship truly enthralling.

The moving feminine theology of Hildegard von Bingen, a daughter’s grief at the loss of her mother, and a maiden’s encounter with her destined fate were the focus of this striking programme. But there was more. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (1824) was written during the time of its composer’s terminal illness. The 12 Ensemble’s delivery and choice of all three compositions led to much broader reflection on how superb art can be produced in ostensibly the most unlikely or unfavourable of circumstances, and often in the face of great adversity.

The 12 Ensemble’s rapturously applauded performance was an inspirational start to what promises to be a truly captivating sequence of offerings from the Festival this Spring.

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