Britten Oboe Quartet 22nd February 2015 – Review by Andrew Polmear

My favourite cricket matches are those where I have no expectation that England will win, but they do, using intelligence, skill and courage against a technically superior side. It’s not a feeling I’ve had for a while, but I had it this morning in another context.

I love the sound of the oboe but I have problems with an oboe quartet: the repertoire is limited and the oboe sound is so strong and rounded that strings can sound quite thin and underpowered beside it. But my low expectations were confounded this morning; the programme was rich and varied and the playing of the Britten Oboe Quartet was a wonder of interweaving textures and perfect balance.

They started with the weakest piece: Elgar’s early Andante and Allegro for oboe and string trio. The Andante is banal, or at least sentimental, though the Allegro has rather more life. But the 21 year old Elgar had clearly thought about the problem of balancing oboe and strings. In the Andante the oboe has a slow melodic part, at times dueting with the other sonorous instrument – the cello, balanced by a fast unremitting accompaniment in the violin. It was fine as an introduction to the players, especially when it was followed by Oliver Knussen’s Cantata for oboe and string trio.

The Cantata is a wonderful piece. Knussen said it “should sound like a disembodied lullaby”. Everyone I spoke to had a different reaction. I didn’t hear any lullaby in it, but rather an abstract work that was both edgy and lyrical, delicate and frenetic, sometimes all in the same bar. Part of the thrill of it came from the absence of those things the listener usually clings to, like some idea of where the first beat of the bar is. The score has bar lines but they aren’t apparent to the listener. Nicholas Daniel told us before they started that at times he and the trio are playing at different speeds. At one point his part abandons musical notation and stops him playing for “one second”. You absolutely had to be there to take in what was happening: to see the players handing over momentum to each other, to see how Knussen achieves those sounds. At one point there is a held high note of unearthly beauty that only reveals itself as oboe and violin in unison when they slowly peal away from each other.

Mozart’s short Adagio for cor anglais and string trio was an early version of his Ave verum corpus – a perfect little gem. I couldn’t think how the string players had altered their sound from the bright tones of the Knussen to this mellow bliss – until I spotted that they played the whole piece muted.

Britten’s Phantasy for oboe and string trio in F minor was another early work, full of lyricism and energy. It sounded quite conventional after the Knussen but it’s already clearly Britten. He copes with the problem of the overpowering oboe by giving the strings much more to do. At one point he even shuts the oboe up completely for five minutes.

The second half ended with the Mozart oboe quartet, played with all the delicacy, sparkle and expression you could want, preceded by Lennox Berkeley’s string trio op. 19, a substantial work, tuneful and rhythmical, that would have sounded modern if it had not been preceded by the work that, with the Knussen, was a high point of the concert for me: Elizabeth Lutyens’ O Absalom. It consists of fragments of sound, handed from one instrument to another, with a pause between each fragment, so that there is no sense of progression, and certainly no tunes and no sustained rhythms, just a stark unbearable beauty. In the score the top line is the violin, the oboe coming second, above viola and cello. All expectations are overturned by writing, and playing, of intelligence, skill and courage.

Which brings me to the performers. I’ve heard them before but today they seemed to reach a peak of performance that could not be bettered. Nicholas Daniel’s oboe was as expressive as ever but with a rounded mellow tone that he maintained through all dynamics and all volumes. His high piano was exquisite; more than anything else it ensured the moulding of strings and oboe into one. The string playing too was expressive, each player with an individual character which was then merged into ensemble playing of the highest quality. Daniel spoke about each piece with affection and love. Before the final Mozart he said something about how comfortable he felt in the setting of our Corn Exchange with the audience in the round and so close. They had taken us through an ambitious and difficult programme, and, as Daniel could see from the faces around him, we had been with them every step of the way.

Andrew Polmear
22 February 2015