Who Could Ask for Anything More?: An Evening with the Magnard Ensemble

By Katie Salvatore


Last Thursday’s guests were the fresh and energetic Magnard Ensemble, who travelled from London to join Chichester’s residents on the evening of December 6th in the Assembly Rooms. Formed in 2012, the ensemble has built a reputation for delivering dynamic concert performances and educational projects, including their 2016 project Revolting Rhymes and Marvellous Music which celebrated the centenary of Roald Dahl's birth in partnership with Paul Patterson, Martin Butler, the City Music Foundation, and Music Link International. The recording from that project was recently released with Orchid Classics and is available from iTunes, Amazon, and on Spotify.

The concert began in a well-packed house that was perfectly sized for the group onstage. The “Allegro con spirito” of Ligeti’s Sechs Bagatellen was a raucous start that gave a taste of what was to come and ended with a bassoon bop with perfect comedic timing from Catriona McDermid. Oboist Mana Shibata’s full and dramatic “Rubato, lamentoso” followed, leading the way through the rest of the piece. With excellent tuning all around, it was clear that the Magnard Ensemble has spent much time perfecting their group sound—especially amongst the upper winds, where most problems usually make themselves heard in groups of this size.

            The piece drew to its witty conclusion and clarinetist Joseph Shiner gave a charming and wholehearted welcome from the stage as well as spoken notes for the Bach Prelude and Fugue in C# Minor arrangement that was next on the programme. Warm and elegant in person, Suzie Clements’ sound was dark and full with just the right amount of edge on the tone to set it spinning over the lines of the ensemble in the strong tradition of the fabulous British flutists that have come before her. The ensemble maintained a beautifully blended sound yet each separate line could be easily heard apart from the others in a dichotomy that could only be explained by hearing the group firsthand. Just when the audience thought the ensemble couldn’t get any more full, they did, gracefully growing and tapering together in a musical ballet and resolving in a lush final chord.

A strong advocate for 20th century music, Ms. McDermid displayed all of the humor previously shown in her bassoon bops when she gave program notes for the Woolrich Book of Studies Set 1 from the stage. The interlude lightened the mood perfectly for the beginning of the piece. Highlights included the lovingly tuned chord clusters in the second movement and the oboe solo reminiscent of the one in Shostakovich’s first symphony, with beautiful high notes and a long melodic line.

The final piece before the intermission was Haydn’s Divertimento in Bb Major Hob ll:46, immortalized by Brahms’ use of the second movement’s chorale melody in his Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56. Light and sweet and everything that Haydn should be, the piece showed off the obviously close relationships of the members of the Magnard Ensemble. The group-members clearly know each other well and leaned in for lovely conversations between pairs of co-conspirators.

            After recalibrating their tuning during the break, the Magnard Ensemble came back strong, starting the second half of the concert with the fullness and resonance that is characteristic of this group’s sound. Composed in 1922 in Gothenburg, Sweden, Carl Nielsen’s woodwind quintet is considered a staple of the repertoire. Attempting to capture the characters of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet to whom he dedicated the piece, the instruments all take turns interacting with each other and playing alone.

            The most famous portion of this work is the solemn Praeludium—which introduces a cor Anglais into the mix—and the eleven variations that follow. The theme is a setting of Nielsen’s own chorale for the Lutheran hymn My Jesus, make me hear and was beautifully balanced across the ensemble. Every member performed admirably but the standout variations included the impressive no-holds-barred clarinet solo variation performed by Joseph Shiner, the flowing and organic solo bassoon variation from Ms. McDermid that followed, and the warm and focused horn variation played by Sussex local Jonathan Farey that was delightfully brassy but never once crossed the line of tasteful playing. If this group does one thing better than anything else, it’s ending pieces, and the final chord rang deep and true in the Assembly Room’s rectangular hall.

The final selection of the concert, Westerly Winds by Paul Patterson, was a fantastic choice for ending the concert; and was performed in the presence of the composer who took a bow at the end.  Commissioned in 1999, the fun-romp through the English countryside contains a selection of four short fantasies based on folk tunes from the West Country. “Scrumpy Giles”  based on the Somerset tune “Farmer Giles” and once again featured delicate oboe playing from Ms. Shibata as well as some of the concert’s highest horn playing for Mr. Farey—all the more impressive for being pulled off so easily at the end of a long and taxing concert.

Imaginative inventions followed on the Devon tune “Widecombe Fair” and Dorset folk song “Linden Lea” before finally turning to the “Helston Floral Dance” from Cornwall. Passing dizzying scales back and forth effortlessly amid interjections of “The British Grenadiers” and the work’s previous folk tunes, the ensemble came to an exciting and enthusiastic conclusion.

            The audience clearly enjoyed themselves and were treated to a surprise encore that showed off the jazz skills of bassoonist Catriona McDermid in a cute and crowd-pleasing arrangement of “I Got Rhythm” from the musical Girl Crazy. As the musicians gave their final bow, the concert hall was abuzz from a magnificent year-end experience.