Written by: David Truslove
Held annually since 2018, the Romsey Chamber Music Festival is one of Hampshire’s best-kept musical secrets. This year’s six-day festival, comprising ten events, featured repertoire given by an international group of conservatoire-trained musicians (Amsterdam, Berlin, Harvard, Helsinki, London) brought together by the initiative of Laura Rickard, the Festival’s founder and artistic director. The central focus was the Belgian composer and virtuoso Eugène-Auguste Ysaÿe (1858-1931), whose celebrated Sonatas for Solo Violin were completed during July 1923 as his Op.27.
Alongside Ysaÿe, familiar landmarks included Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, Elgar’s Piano Quintet and Ravel’s Tzigane, each performance confirming the credentials of these young professionals. Lesser-known works brought fresh perspectives on Enescu, Saint-Saëns and the Boulanger sisters. Choice and variety of repertoire is enabled by the festival’s nine principal players, all award-winning instrumentalists, who share duties – three violinists, three viola-players and two cellists each having different responsibilities, with pianist Ziteng Fan a vital unifying presence.
I caught up with events on Day 3 at Romsey’s United Reformed Church to hear three works of which Ysaÿe’s atmospheric Amitié, Op.26, brought accumulating interest. In this reduced version for two violins and piano, Emma Roijackers and Laura Rickard perfectly caught its Gallic charm, its cordial exchanges offset by an excursion into bitonality that proved to be the most rewarding element, its salon-like rumination outstaying its welcome. Like Ysaÿe, his Belgian compatriot Henri Vieuxtemps was another acclaimed violinist and considered the foremost exponent of the Franco-Belgian school. His three- movement Viola Sonata, Op.36, could have no more sensitive advocate than Sofia Sousa Silva. She thoroughly immersed herself in its glowing lyricism (especially in the variation style Barcarolle) and the more muscular Finale. Elgar’s Piano Quintet, Op.84 was equally involving, its mystery, tenderness and dramatic intensity clearly outlined in an account governed by an innate receptivity to this haunting masterpiece.
On the afternoon of Day 5, Fan, Rickard, Sào Soulez Larivière (viola) and Rainer Crosett (cello) illuminated the delicate and combustible qualities of Fauré’s Piano Quartet No.2, Op.45. It’s a tremendous workout for the pianist who carries much of the burden of the two movements marked Allegro molto. But this was a collaboration with each member knowing just when to assume the limelight or slip into the shadows. Earlier, there had been a String Trio by Jean Françaix and a recent work by Adrian Sutton (renowned for War Horse) whose Renaissance-inspired Trio Dances had premiered at the 2021 Presteigne Festival. Pastiche here, but none the worse for that, art concealing art and played with absolute fidelity to its inherent Englishness. Leaving the most vivid impression was Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.5, each of its two movements dispatched with depth of feeling and revelatory flair by Luke Hsu. Highlights from the evening’s concert included Piazzolla’s Tango del Diablo, Gade’s Jalousie, and part of Rodrigo’s Sonata Pimpante, its long-breathed lines utterly beguiling.The final concert provided a gratifying account of Nadia Boulanger’s Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, where charm and rhythmic impetus was to the fore. Ysaÿe’s sepia-tinged String Quintet in B-minor, Op.15, was a little too reliant on soul-searching notwithstanding an affectionate outing. But it was a barnstorming performance of Brahms’s Piano Quintet, Op.34, that set the seal on proceedings. Here was playing of such passion and authority one might have thought its quasi-orchestral textures belonged to Beethoven. Nowhere have I heard this work played with such vigour. What a little gem this festival is!