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Review: Northern Chords at Durham Cathedral

Russian composers take centre stage as the Northern Chords festival brings magic to the Chapter House. Rob Barnes was there

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The Busch Ensemble
The Busch Ensemble

All the works in this year’s Northern Chords festival feature composers who were alive in 1914, the beginning of the Great War, and this concert provided the opportunity for us to hear works by some the great Russians, to the obvious delight of those who packed the Chapter House.

Stravinsky remodelled themes by the 17th Century Italian composer Pergolesi, used in his ballet Pulcinella, for his Suite Italienne for violin and piano.

The result was a work which was, in Stravinsky’s words, “the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible”. The themes were reassuringly familiar, with the Dutch violinist Mathieu van Bellen playing with verve and great feeling for the work’s heritage.

Festival founder and artistic director Jonathan Bloxham led a group of six in Sergei Prokoviev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, written during his time in North America, and featuring an unusual combination of clarinet, string quartet and piano.

It was an animated and enchanting piece which encapsulated the heart of klezmer performing, particularly from the German clarinettist David Orlowsky and in the sweet viola of American Nora Romanoff-Schwarzberg.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata was his last composition, its three movements alternately other-worldly and austere, melancholic and impassioned, with a very personal statement in the final adagio written in memory of Beethoven and featuring glimpses of his Moonlight Sonata.

Estonian Liisa Randalu played this challenging work sympathetically, drawing out the detailed emotions written into the music.

The second half comprised Prokoviev’s Cello Sonata, described by fellow composer Nikolai Miaskovsky at its premiere in 1950 as a “miraculous piece of music”. German cellist Gabriel Schwabe re-affirmed this view, with his instrument displaying deep resonant tones in the difficult acoustic, playing with inspired virtuosity throughout and confirming this piece’s special place in the cello canon.

Canadian pianist Walter Delahunt deserves a special mention for his accompaniment in three of the evening’s pieces, playing with great feeling for the finer points of the style of each of the works.

The Chapter House, immortalised on film as Professor McGonagall’s classroom in a couple of the Harry Potter films, was infused with yet more magic on the second day of the Northern Chords festival.

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