La Belle Epoque

By design or accident, Music in the Round’s weekend festival of French music in its spring season, La Belle Époque, coincides with a ‘SongMakers’ French Weekend as part of the Sheffield University Concert Season.

Hence, a merger of concerts over the weekend: Friday, the 9th of March until Sunday, the 11th, and sees nine concerts crammed into it, one of them strictly a words and music discussion affair on French Impressionism in Art and Music involving pianist Tim Horton.

By any other name, it’s a Debussy-Ravel mini-festival but does not incorporate either composer’s complete chamber music as suggested if solo piano music is classed as such – it usually is!

Not a single, solo piano piece is heard, and from these two composers of all people, over the programmes as advertised!

Nevertheless, there are four super concerts from Ensemble 360 taking in what can be called the complete instrumental duos, trios, quartets, etc, written for chamber forces by Debussy and Ravel, with a guest harpist, Catrin Finch, sitting in at the fourth concert.

Listings details of the 18 works being performed makes little sense when they can be found along with dates and times at

The nine concerts are spread across three venues, the Crucible Studio, one at nearby Upper Chapel in Norfolk Street and two at Firth Hall, the latter two housing the three concerts in the university’s ‘SongMakers’ French Weekend.

Solo song is sometimes classed as chamber music and there is a vast amount and countless reams of French song, chanson or mélodie, which is sparsely represented given the weight of superb material available in the three ‘SongMakers’ concerts.

Each one is of 60 minute-duration (no interval) with soprano Gillian Keith reprising her Debussy and his Muse (Marie-Blanche Vasnier) programme – songs and readings – with pianist Simon Lepper.

The latter also partners baritone James Newby in Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques (the five Greek folk songs) and Songs of Travel by Vaughan Williams – clever programming, but it is supposed to be a French weekend!

Lepper is also present when soprano Ailish Tynan (you can’t argue the calibre of the singers employed!) explores the voice of children in French song taking the charming nonsense that is Poulenc’s La Courte Paille (The Short Straw) as her starting point.

Not advertised in Music in the Round’s spring brochure is that this concert has optional French food and wine at a pre-concert three-course meal and post-concert cheese and wine at Inox Dine, across the road from Firth Hall.

A visit to will tell you all, but don’t be thrown when advertised times using the 24-hour clock are shown using the 12-hour clock!

The opening concert of the weekend, Baudelaire and the Bassoon from an engaging threesome of soprano Louise Alder, Ensemble 360 bassoonist Amy Harman and pianist James Baillieu, suggests it may be a jointly planned MitR/ University affair.

The great French poet’s connection with a bassoon is obscure to say the least, although the instrument does figure in Chabrier’s setting of Baudelaire’s L’Invitation au Voyage which is being performed, as is Duparc’s better known setting where it doesn’t.

With the exception of Debussy’s song cycle Five Poèmes de Baudelaire and ‘selections’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, there is no obvious link to the poet in the other advertised pieces, not to mention the presence of a bassoon.

It will probably turn up in the Wagner ‘selections’ which are going to sound very strange given the performing forces.

Like most of the rest of the concert, the word is intriguing!


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