Ficino Ensemble at Dublin Unitarian Church on 24 May 2015
A musician-led enterprise, formed with the aim of performing out-of-the way or unjustly neglected works, the Ficino Ensemble’s programme is certainly intriguing. György Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for wind quintet (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn) get things started snappily. These short, close-knit pieces demand much of the ensemble, and the five work together brilliantly, with some smart and incisive playing. The musicians clearly relish this material, with its constantly shifting – at times zany – palette of rhythms and sonorities.
Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs involve an eclectic ensemble of viola, cello, harp, flute, clarinet, and percussion (he was keen to get away from the piano), evoking the raw sound-worlds of traditional folk ensembles. This combination also explains why it’s not often heard, despite the music’s accessibility. Mezzo-soprano Norah King relays the different moods – and cultural idioms – of the eleven songs with singing of real beauty and variety of expression, and a rich depth of tone when needed. The varying combinations of instruments for each song add an extra dimension, ranging from earthy strings to the otherworldly effects of string harmonics and percussion. The last song, an untitled Azerbaijani love-song, brings the set to a close with pungent wit and gusto, leaving you wanting more.
After these bitty modern pieces, the length and style of Brahms’ first String Sextet provides quite a change of mood and rhythm. The combination of two each of violins, violas and cellos is an attractive alternative to the conventional string quartet. There is excellent ensemble playing, with wonderful moments of interplay between different combinations within the group. The emotional core of the work comes in the second movement, with the driven intensity of the theme-and-variations led from the violas. Within its spirals of despair there are also hints of folk colour, even a hurdy-gurdy, giving a nice link to the Berio. After a buoyant scherzo, the sextet round out the finale with vibrant, lyrical playing. An ensemble worth looking out for.
Ligeti: Six Bagatelles (1953)
Berio: Folk Songs (1964) – with Norah King, mezzo-soprano
Brahms: Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 18
The Ficino Ensemble: Elaine Clarke, Sebastian Liebig (violin); Nathan Sherman, Fergal Ó Dornáin (viola); Tue Tang, Eoin Quinlan (cello); Sinead Farrell (flute/piccolo); Macdara Ó Seireadáin (clarinet); Matthew Manning (oboe); John Hearne (bassoon); Cuan Ó Seireadáin (French horn); Geraldine O’Doherty (harp); Chris Stynes, Caitriona Frost (percussion)