Composer’s love letters straight from the heart

decprofileensemble'Claudia Ajmone-Marsan
decprofileensemble'Claudia Ajmone-Marsan
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Bernard Lee reports on the opening salvos of Sheffield’s Music in the Round May Festival, held at The Crucible Studio

ON February 1 1928 Leos Janácek wrote to Kamila Stösslová: “I’ve begun to write something nice (a quartet). Our life will be in it. It will be called Love Letters. I think that it will sound delightful.”

Eniko Magyar, viola player, Ensemble 360

Eniko Magyar, viola player, Ensemble 360

At the time he was 73, she was 36 and, judging by the ecstatic reception, many were delighted with this semi-staged dramatisation of ‘Intimate Letters’, as the composer subsequently called the string quartet, as part of Music in the Round’s May Festival at the Crucible Studio.

Janácek was immediately besotted with her in July 1917 when he first met her while taking his annual holiday in the Moravian spa town of Luhacovice and, over the course of the next 11 years until his death in August 1928, penned over 700 letters to her.

Many were amatory and became increasingly domestic, as if he was married to her, though she was already married, in 1912, as was he in 1881, but his marriage became loveless around 10 years later.

The ‘affair’ was entirely one-sided on Janácek’s part with Kamila remaining emotionally detached, though they continued to meet on a not too regular basis (they lived a considerable distance apart), often with one or both respective spouses.

Ensemble 360 members Ben Nabarro

Ensemble 360 members Ben Nabarro

Letters between them were not one-way, though he burnt most of hers at her request, and she was probably flattered by his attention, welcoming his letters to fill the many lonely days when her husband, an antiques dealer in Prague, was away on business.

Janácek would probably not be the great composer we remember now without her, as most of his masterpieces came after he met her and were inspired by her, none more directly or openly than the ‘Intimate Letters’ quartet.

In poetic terms, she was his muse being single-handedly, if unwittingly responsible for his astonishing burst of creativity in his final 11 years.

Beyond saying that Kamila died in 1935 and her husband selling Janácek’s letters, which is how they survived, such is the background to the Janácek-Stösslová story of which many may not be fully aware.

Marie Bitlloch  of Ensemble 360

Marie Bitlloch of Ensemble 360

Paul Allen’s selection of the composer’s letters to Kamila were judiciously chosen, skilfully edited and linked together to provide a running narrative that amply showed the facets of his infatuation with her and it was delivered with a simplicity that belied the shaded nuances and timing Daniel Evans brought to it.

References to people like Zdenka, Olga and Otto – respectively, Janácek’s wife, their first child who died in 1903 and Kamila’s second son born in 1916 – would have been lost on people who didn’t know who they were, but there’s nothing you can do about that without distorting Janácek’s written word.

You might say that would have been worse than delivering, as happened, the text before each movement of the quartet breaking up the work’s musical continuity – not a good idea, but one that went down extremely well!

That it wasn’t totally destroyed was thanks to the four musicians: Benjamin Nabarro, Claudia Ajmone-Marsan, violins, Eniko Magyar, a superb viola player and, making a brief but welcome return, Marie Bitlloch, cello, who managed to keep the music compelling, despite the ‘interruptions’. Words and music concerts are not actually a new idea for those with long memories that go back to the early years of this festival. Remember the ‘composer portraits’?

They always went down well but didn’t break complete works up into chunks.

Before the Janácek there was a fabulous performance of Martinu’s Nonet for wind quintet and strings, each instrumentalist making their presence felt without ever remotely compromising the overall balance.

Marie Bitlloch’s wonderfully expressive playing at the beginning of the second movement cries out for specific mention, as does the highly notable, noble-toned viola playing of Eniko Magyar – like Marie, sitting in as a guest.

The nicely understated autumnal feel towards the end of the piece was a salutary reminder that the composer knew he was dying, despite the much of the music’s sunny, happy feel.

Haydn’s Op 71 No 1 string quartet arranged by his friend Paul Wranitzky skilfully merges the added wind instruments and double bass into a credible whole, here with notable flute playing from new Ensemble 360 flautist Juliette Bausor.

The composer’s Op 20 No 3 quartet was heard the previous evening as the first work in the festival’s opening concert in a lively account from the ensemble’s ‘resident string quartet’: Ben Nabarro, Claudia Ajmone-Marsan, Judith Busbridge, who gratefully (and on the ear) seized the important viola part in a lovely, saccharine-free slow movement, and Gemma Rosefield. On this evidence they have struck up an excellent rapport is a short time.

Joined by a fine bass clarinet player, Katherine Lacey, the ensemble’s five wind players turned in a first rate performance of Janácek’s Mládí (Youth) which was full of foot-tapping rhythmic underpinning. In the pre-concert pianist Tim Horton suggested he didn’t know what nationalistic music was (or words to that effect) until the advent of Bartók and his folk music collecting activity.

He must have got an inkling in the two works he was involved in after the interval, starting with a truly magnificent performance of Dvorák’s Op 87 piano quartet – from his so-called ‘nationalistic period’, though not overly nationalistic.

The first movement was richly sonorous and overflowed with spirit and élan (as well as its semblance of nationalistic feel), the second replete with gorgeous cello playing from Gemma Rosefield, the third’s Ländler music was deliciously played (and its trio is surely nationalistically-based – folk-based at least!), while the last was graced by Ben Nabarro’s violin virtuosity.

And what of Smetana? You can’t get more nationalistic than him in his operas Dalibor, Libuse and The Bartered Bride, the overture to which ended the concert in a David Matthews arrangement for string quartet, wind quintet, double bass and piano.

If ever there was an exhibition piece to show off the collective virtuosity within Ensemble 360, this is it. It was stunning and had to heard to be believed.