Royal College of Music Wind Ensemble 24th January 2016 – Review by Andrew Polmear

Let me get something off my chest straight away. In Strings Attached Newsletter #8 I urged us to approach the hearing of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.8, arranged for wind ensemble, with an open mind. I was myself looking forward to discovering new things about the work. I have to say that I did not think it was a success. True, there were some lovely lyrical moments in the Adagio, especially from the lead clarinet, but otherwise I found myself thinking too often that if Beethoven had known it would be played by a wind ensemble he wouldn’t have written it like that! Specifically, the bassoons and horns were too loud when playing some of the gentle accompaniment that Beethoven gives to the pianist’s left hand; grace notes aren’t graceful enough when played by a bassoon; above all we lost that intense conversation between pianist and music and had instead a rather rumbustious piece for wind band. It was noticeable that the playing was nowhere near as good as in the other three pieces: ensemble was poor and some of the fast passages were too fast for some of the players. Throughout, my sympathies were with the players: they shouldn’t have been given this piece to play.

In contrast, the rest of the concert was excellent. Janacek’s Mladi danced with energy, joy and humour. Janacek gives every member of the sextet a part in the conversations between players, usually with at least three people talking at once, some making major statements, others tossing off one liners. There is a danger in knowing that Janacek derives his motifs from the spoken word. At one point I kept hearing the bassoon shout “Shut up! Shut up!” But of course Janacek thought in Czech. And what a difference the bass clarinet makes when added to the usual wind quintet; an extra depth that Janacek clearly appreciates: he gives the instrument two key solos.

The Strauss Serenade in E flat was over before I had found much of interest in it and indeed it’s an early work. I don’t think the acoustics of the bare Corn Exchange can really cope with 13 wind players; there was too much resonance. I’m sure this will be remedied in the forthcoming refurbishment.

The Mozart Serenade in C minor, on the other hand, is a work of Mozartian perfection. He wrote to the strengths of each instrument, he knew when to cut the numbers down to four, giving us moments of sheer bliss when two clarinets or two oboes, play with, then against, the two bassoons. The players, the same players who seemed uncomfortable in the Beethoven, brought out the joy and the drama of this glorious work.

In this review I have been judging the performances by professional, not student standards. But an added enjoyment comes from an awareness that we are listening to some of the best young musicians in the country; and they were very, very good.


4 thoughts on “Royal College of Music Wind Ensemble 24th January 2016 – Review by Andrew Polmear”

  1. How lucky we are to have two reviews regularly on our website of the Coffee Concerts!
    Having much enjoyed Richard’s I now find myself nodding as I read Andrew’s rather tougher assessment. It took me a little time to adjust my brain, my ears and my knowledge of the Beethoven under my fingers – upset from the start, from extra-octave bass grace notes to the scrambles… but by the finale I was catching up with the players, and really enjoyed just how like a Rossini overture it could be at times, and that felt great as a wind band! Maybe Andrew Polmear is just a little too serious here? (add smiley emoticon but can’t find button)

  2. Well well, old-fashioned smiley colon-right bracket “:)” turns into new-fashioned one by magic!

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