A white cello case walks up Gardner Street in late October sun through the teeming Sunday lunchtime throng. Its feet belong to Marie Bitlloch and she trails behind three black fiddle cases that have waists and legs below them. It’s the Elias String Quartet on their way back to Brighton station More
Brighton audiences are getting to know the Elias String Quartet, not least from their Beethoven series in All Saints Church, Hove in the 2015 Brighton Festival. There they triumphed over an echoing church acoustic with playing as intimate as in a drawing room. In the Brighton Dome Corn Exchange for the start of the new coffee concert season the acoustic was warm but still resonant enough, More
Nielsen Wind Quintet – Flute, Catherine Hare; Oboe/cor anglais, Charlotte Evans; Clarinet, Ewan Zuckert; French Horn, Kaitlyn Lipka; Bassoon, Todd Gibson-Cornish.
Mozart Serenade No 10 in Bb for 13 wind instruments ‘Gran Partita’ K361 – Clarinets, Alan Shellard, Ewan Zuckert; Basset Horns, William Knight, Elliot Gresty; Oboes, Rebecca Watt, Andre Martina Machado; Bassoons, Todd Gibson-Cornish, Greg Topping; French Horns, Samuel Walker, Ranita Klimach, Fabian van der Geest, Ana Feijao; Double Bass, Jon Mikel Martinez.
The door quietly opens at the distant end of the waiting open space. Through it emerges a sequence of figures, all in black, their features part-silhouetted against the dull morning light coming in from the huge windows above and behind them as they walk steadily across the floor. Each silent figure carries not a gun of destruction, but an instrument of peace-giving.
Applause rises from an audience laid out in three sides of a square. The figures advance, unvarying in pace and arrive to take up unusual positions. Some form a deep U-shape, its two prongs fitting snugly inside the embrace of the open two arms of the square. Nine figures stand, forming the U and behind the curve four more pair up in two separate yet complementary stations.
For all bar a lucky few in the waiting audience, this sight is completely unprecedented. The musicians are revealed to be 10 young men and three young women. They lift their instruments and a simultaneous long deep breath fills 24 lungs. In curiosity and wonder, 400 more lungs in the audience enlarge. “What on earth is this going to sound like?”
What comes, for all bar that lucky few, is also unprecedented. The word ‘stunning’ is one you see on event posters and in arts marketing articles so often that invisible little blue bags of salt ought to accompany them. But stunned is what the audience will have been – including those lucky few who thought they knew what to expect but were now hearing anew the 13-strong opening Bb chord live.
In huge, deliberate, divine strides the music starts out. Such richness, yet sometimes earthiness; such power, such strangeness; such unexpected and massive collective regalness. It is the unforgettable impact of the slow introduction of a unique Wind Serenade from 18th Century Munich and Vienna – the Gran Partita. Say the number ‘361’ and from now on it can only ever mean this.
No other composer than Mozart could have conceived quite this whole experience, makes us sense in the music a detached majesty and yet an outreaching and welcoming amiability, all in one warm feel. As optionally prescribed, a double-bass is here substituting for a double bassoon. Soon, a long chord of anticipation is held, and out bubbles at more than brisk speed an allegro that tells us this is to be a substantial encounter with street music as well as banqueting music.
The players continually look at each other in pairs and across the U as a team. Various players in turn become focal points at certain moments. In pairs, they often turn to each other and chatter, chuckle, and then combine to tease the others. Games are being played all over the place. The double-bass player frequently smiles at his couple of cahoots bassoonists. The four horns behind the curve are commenting aiding and abetting. The first clarinet directs the whole thing while yet still playing, himself.
The fun and exhilaration all 13 players are having becomes ours. We, seated in the round, can catch each other’s eyes across the open square and smile. When did you last do that at a classical music in serried ranks of resolutely forward-facing audience seating?
There comes a Minuet, gold-studdedly boasting two contrasting trios instead of one. An Adagio, made famous in the film of Amadeus, halts time – even though the instruments never stop moving and interchanging the food and drink they are sharing and exchanging. Another Minuet follows, again with twice its trio quota. This is truly a large and special occasion being depicted, and experienced by both the players and listeners.
A Romanze takes us into reverie, then out jumps a cheeky presto-paced allegretto. The Romanze re-casts its spell and then Mozart flexes his invention yet further with a theme with many virtuoso variations. In one later variation, the many accompanying instruments sound, I swear, like a deep, serenely flowing and eddying river at high tide.
Then for the finale, Mozart cracks the whip and this magically imposing ensemble tears home with such elan and vigour that when it finishes there breaks out cheering and clapping of an abandon unequalled at any of these Coffee Concerts. The first bassoonist asks if we’d like to hear the finale again, Daft question. The reply is of 200 people all holding out their glasses for another pint of nectar to be poured them from the giant flagon.
Without the Royal College of Music Wind Ensemble bringing this prohibitively outsized and untourable chamber composition, one-off, to the Coffee Concerts, neither they nor we would be having this potential experience of a lifetime in live classical music playing or listening. Last season, they brought Schubert’s Octet so memorably one was satisfied the moment could not be emulated. Yet now it has been eclipsed (five days ahead of the moon doing just this to the sun) and this new pattern of series programming opens up possible future riches of music fronted by Richard Strauss and Mozart giving us at least three more great Serenades around which to build a Coffee Concert.
Of the five RCMWE members who opened this one with Carl Nielsen’s fascinating Wind Quintet, one can only feel sympathy for the three who then listened from the sidelines in envy at those chosen to play the Gran Partita.
Another fascinating end to another outstanding season. As the audience left for the Spring and Summer, RCMWE director Simon Canning, who had been listening in the audience, bestowed upon double-bassman Jon Mikel Martinez (by definition a string player) official honorary membership of the Wind Department.
Those 13 may never get this chance again. Neither may we. No recording or broadcast could ever match this hearing of it live and in the flesh – and, of course, in the round. Note, above, these musicians’ names. Any could appear in your favourite orchestra over the coming years. Or here at a future Coffee Concert forming a new ensemble in the early days of their post-graduate professional lives.
I detect an ambivalence among Strings Attached members. If asked, we say we want more string events rather than more wind. But give us a good wind concert and we love it. The RCM students gave us a wonderful wind concert and we adored it.
The music helps of course. The Nielsen Wind Quintet was a good start, and in keeping with this audience’s enthusiasm for 20th century works. The first two movements are made up of lovely intricate textures of sound – nothing too surprising – but the third movement is another matter. Starting with unaccompanied flute, each player has a solo that seems to abandon the conventions of the other movements. Discords are emphasised, rhythms are unexpected, the integrity of the quintet seems to be broken up by side shows – especially a humorous exchange between clarinet and bassoon.
The players looked so young but played with real maturity. From the very opening bassoon solo, phrasing was expressive and ensemble good, though not perfect. Listening to a wind quintet is so different from a string quintet. Here there is no clear leader – clarinet, oboe and flute all hold the high ground, while the bassoon supplies the bass and the horn a melodic inner part. It’s all very egalitarian – appropriate for a Danish composer. And of course each instrument makes such a different sound from the others. It gives a louder, denser sound than strings. In the Corn Exchange with no chairs behind the players it was even a little shrill because of the empty space that was thus exposed.
By the end of the first eight bars of Mozart’s Gran Partita we knew we were in for a treat. It’s a joyous piece, with Mozart using every one of his 13 players to turn a series of trivial little tunes into absolute perfection. If Salieri, as portrayed in Shaffer’s film Amadeus, had heard this performance he wouldn’t have had to wait till the third movement to realise that Mozart’s writing was divine; he’d have realised it from the start. The harmonies, the key changes, the resolutions of each little tune make you want to shout out “yes, yes, of course”. It’s also very funny, a point that these wonderful players brought out both in their playing and in the way two players would look at each other and grin (or get as near to grinning as a wind player can manage). And it really worked to use a double bass (as Mozart intended) instead of a contra-bassoon for the bass part. It added an extra texture right at the heart of the sound.
In the Strings Attached Newsletter I had urged members not to be put of by the fact that the players were students. I should have been more positive and said that one of the main attractions of this concert would be that the players are students but play with the technique and musicality of professionals. What a treat to see and hear some of the best young musicians in the country play such glorious music. This link between the Brighton Dome and the RCM is a wonderful thing. Long may it continue.
Coffee Concert: Britten Oboe Quartet – Nicholas Daniel (oboe, cor anglais), Jacqueline Shave (violin), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello) – at Brighton Corn Exchange, Sunday February 22 at 11am.
Elgar, Andante & Allegro; Knussen, Cantata for oboe & string trio; Mozart, Adagio for cor anglais & string trio K580a; Britten, Phantasy for oboe & string trio in F minor Op 2; interval; Lutyens, Oboe quartet, O Absalom; L.Berkeley, String Trio Op 19; Mozart, Oboe Quartet in K K370.
A Coffee Concert star born by lunchtime. Not over a few appearances, but in just a couple of hours. That was Britain’s favourite oboist Nicholas Daniel. His rapport with his audience as spokesman for his ensemble and its music and his instrument, was sheer joy. Lots of interesting information, advice, signposting, musical stories and jokes of human appeal, and a sense of humour, wit and willing self-deprecation.
Almost anti-star, with a sloppy, V-necked white T-shirt (‘Armani Exchange’) he might earlier have worn out of the shower to cook the breakfast in, now peering out from a sober dark suit. But a positive superstar with his wonderfully supple, flexible tone and the Daniel sound one longs to hear in praise of this instrument as an expressive match for its other apparently more versatile woodwind counterparts.
On behalf of certain 20th Century repertoire being played here, particularly Oliver Knussen and Elisabeth Lutyens pieces from 1977, Daniel was a spokesman needing to be an ambassador. But such is this Brighton Coffee Concert audience that almost anyone fearing they might have needed sugar with the medicine would have gladly submitted to the experience and challenges Daniel, Shave, Finnimore and Dearnley laid before them.
Once again, it’s that advantage which performance set ‘in the round’ gives performers and listeners alike. The skills, tests and stresses for the musicians in both these demanding composers’ works was palpable from all 360 degree viewing angles. And that close-up experience brought everything alive which on record or radio can so easily otherwise sound impersonal and imposing.
Speaking to me later, Daniel indicated how rewarded his ensemble had felt at the softness and fertility of the soil awaiting their seeds. And he told the audience in the round how nice he found it to see his friends, the other musicians, playing their instruments with people behind them.
This hugely receptive Brighton audience must make musicians at 11am wonder if they are still in bed, dreaming. It wants to learn, it wants to encounter new experiences. It has had its perception of chamber music widened by Chris Darwin’s ‘Origins of the Pieces’ programme notes , and its taste catholicised over the years by outstanding ensembles who now realise they are less box-office hidebound in what to play. The audience now sense when a risk is being taken and they will don the crash helmet and climb onto the pillion seat for the ride.
The Britten Oboe Quartet, an offshoot from the Britten Sinfonia. Britten is increasingly in this audience’s veins and his Phantasy hit the spot as it completed a first-half musical exploration that juxtaposed an early Elgar piece (of youthful intensity, then waltzing chattiness), and a Mozart rarity for cor anglais (ending in a gorgeous smile), with Knussen’s meticulously drawn Cantata of inventive, imagination-provoking textures and atmospheres.
Daniel warned that the Lutyens to begin the second half was best-placed there for an audience able to galvanise itself during the interval. Horror film score composition was Lutyens’ day job but here, from alcohol-fuelled evening composition, said Daniel, came O Absalom, another 12-tone insistence from 1977, this time dedicated to her mentally-stricken sister and written for Daniel’s teacher Janet Craxton. Cor anglais reappeared, and hardly an audience member moved during the piece’s entirety.
Daniel left the stage for the ladies to show their close-woven ensemble in the 1943 String Trio by the much more easily-assimilated Lennox Berkeley. This prepared everyone for the dessert, the piece most in the audience will have known, the one which ostensibly gave birth to the oboe quartet as a musical entity – the Quartet by Mozart. Taking us back two centuries, placed last on the programme, the performance came hewn from and invigorated by the rigours and angularity of what music the Britten Oboe Quartet had played already that morning.
More introductory words from Daniel, bringing chuckles about the bars in the finale designed to make the soloist sweat and go slightly nuts. And probably still the most perfect piece in the repertoire, given an extra fizz this day, brought our adventure in Daniel’s den of delights to a close ― and to cheers from the audience.
Yes, cheers. What had looked the least tempting programme of music in this season’s series had delivered something special. And the Coffee Concerts had seen its latest new star born.
Concluding this season is another rare chance to hear live in performance a big and great work for unusual forces, made programmable by enlisting senior musicians from a study situation. The Royal College of Music Wind Ensemble will play Mozart’s Gran Partita, alias his 10th Serenade, for 13 wind instruments in Bb K 361.
If you’ve forgotten the source of the Adagio that in ‘Amadeus’ stopped Salieri in his tracks, rendering him impotent as a composer, this is it. Be there on Sunday March 15 at 11am and be similarly flabbergasted by beauty. Be ready for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons, 1 double bassoon and 4 horns. They are your lucky 13.
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.
22 February 2015