Review: CLASSICAL Endymion Ensemble, Blyth Valley Chamber Music Cratfield Church, Suffolk

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The Independent Culture
Anyone making a first pilgrimage to the Sunday afternoon chamber concerts at Cratfield might do well to equip themselves with the relevant 1in Ordnance Survey map. Like so many remote villages in Suffolk, there are many ways to approach it; none direct, and all using the narrowest of twisting country lanes. The reason for such a remote venue becomes clear when you find it: Suffolk has a wealth of lovely churches, but few which seat just about the right numbers and possess such excellent acoustics for chamber music.

For the opening concert of their 10th season, Blyth Valley Chamber Music had as its centrepiece Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, performed by the Endymion Ensemble. In a change to the advertised programme, Krysia Osostowicz played Bach's Partita No 2 for solo violin, a daunting task before The Soldier's Tale, but providing a perfect foil to it. It was an excellent performance which, without breaking the Baroque mould, had an intensely poetic range of expression, dwelling, for example, on the reprise of the Sarabande with an almost romantic sensibility.

The Soldier's Tale was conceived, through financial constraints, for small forces in small venues. Even for a concert performance, the space available on Sunday was only just adequate with the Narrator in the pulpit and the instrumentalists grouped around the actors, instead of to one side, and making three separate groups as Stravinsky intended.

Nevertheless it worked well. As the soldier of Afanasiev's original folk- tale, who sells his sole to the devil, David Antrobus made an excellent Joseph - a perfect wide-eyed and vulnerable victim. Jonathan Dean, slender and bearded, with an obsequious smile worthy of the best used-car salesman, looked suitably devilish. The only problem was that both voices sounded very similar and Jonathan Dean made little attempt at vocal characterisation in any of the devil's different guises, even that of the old clothes-woman.

Central to any performance of The Soldier's Tale is the Narrator, both commentator on and contributor to the drama. However tragic it may be that we are now deprived of his magnificent singing voice, it was good to hear Benjamin Luxon, who now specialises in speaking roles, as the Narrator, projecting a larger-than-life personality on a captivated audience. If, contrary to Stravinsky's direction, it was more acted than read, then that was all to the good, and in the intimate conditions of this performance more preferable than what can often sound like a more stentorian version of TS Eliot reading his own poetry.

There was obvious rapport between Andrea Quinn and her players. Her vital and dynamic direction kept this performance under tight control, with superb playing from all seven instrumentalists of the Endymion Ensemble.

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