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These young wind players also hail from distinguished backgrounds. The oboist, Adrian Wilson, is a former BBC Young Musician of the Year finalist and principal oboe of the National Youth Orchestra. He studied at the Royal Academy, where he now teaches, and was also principal oboist of the European Youth Orchestra. He now plays a similar role with the newly-formed Southbank Sinfonia. Clarinettist Matthew Hunt trained at the Guildhall and in Paris and has broadcast and performed throughout Europe, serving as principal clarinettist with several of Europe's leading orchestras. The bassoonist Benjamin Hudson, who plays a Heckel bassoon, trained at the RNCM and in Berlin and was a former woodwind winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. He leads or co-leads both the Manchester Camerata and the Northern Chamber Orchestra. Horn player Brian Walters studied not only at the RNCM but also at the University of the Pacific in the US. He has since performed with many orchestras in both the US and Europe, and appeared at the Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center, as well as in Berlin, Lucerne and in Singapore. The background of each of these impressive young players gives a vivid idea of the phenomenally high standards of the newly-formed Ensemble 360.

The last work in Ensemble 360's vital recital was the Piano Quintet by Sir Edward Elgar. While the launch of the allegro strongly suggests Elgar's 19th century predecessors, including Brahms, the poetic quality of Marie Bitlloch's eloquently yearning cello and the lively lead-in of piano and first violin (Sarah Bitlloch) put one in mind of Elgar's Cello Concerto, which dates from much the same creative period. It's a dark movement, full of uncertainty, set against confident-sounding assertions best evidenced in some superbly counterpointed passages towards the close. Sarah Bitlloch displayed the kind of assurance a leader needs; and she produces a full-blooded sound, too. Equally impressive was the way Elgar makes the transition from an explosive climax via a hushed link in the viola part, and likewise, following a distant-sounding echo of the main theme, a wan cello link ushers in the final bars, tinged with mixed mystery and nostalgia.

Fine touches of portamento, not least from the leader, enhanced the slow movement. At times the warm, rich tone these players produced sounded as full-bodied and bracing as an entire string orchestra, while some forceful and passionate passages of unison playing felt tinged with a deep underlying pathos. Again these players brought their wonderful precision to bear: their instinctive feel for same-length, evenly weighted bowing, and their gift for arriving on the string at the same split second, lent this a crisp assurance. They played with real spirit and vitality, too, holding something in reserve for the end. Tim Horton's sensitive approach to the occasionally over-rhetorical piano part was especially satisfying.

Rotherham was really fortunate to secure this première performance by so talented a team. If this is the kind of standard we can expect from Ensemble 360 over the coming seasons, one can understand the enthusiasm of Peter Cropper, ex-leader of The Lindsays, in describing them as 'the most exciting ensemble to be formed in recent years'. These super-gifted, high-spirited musicians will give a lift to any occasion. It is particularly fortunate, too, that an informal recording of the event was made available to the ensemble by the distinguished recording producer, Lennart Dehn. 'That was utterly enthralling', said the listener next to me as the applause died down. The audience left on cloud nine.

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Copyright © 18 October 2005 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK


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