Nicholas Daniel and the Britten Sinfonia Unveil Brian Elias’ Oboe Quintet
Finzi, Brian Elias, Mozart: Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Britten Sinfonia (Jacqueline Shave & Miranda Dale [violins], Clare Finnimore & Dorothea Vogel [violas], Caroline Dearnley [cello], Wigmore Hall, London, 19.4.2017. (CS)
Finzi – Interlude for oboe and string quartet
Brian Elias – Oboe Quintet (world premiere)
Mozart – String Quintet in C minor K.406/516b
Brian Elias may not be the most prolific of composers but he has been a significant presence in British contemporary music since the 1980s, a decade which brought the composer to prominence with the premiere of his orchestral work L’Eylah – written in memory of Elias’s sister, Toya – at the BBC Proms in 1984, and the first performance of Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya, a cycle for mezzo-soprano and large orchestra, in 1989.
This year we will be hearing Elias’ music more frequently. In the autumn, his Olivier-winning score for Kenneth MacMillan’s last ballet, The Judas Tree (1991), will be reprised at the Royal Ballet, to mark the 25th anniversary of the choreographer’s death, and the Cello Concerto that he completed in 2015 is due to receive its premiere. Moreover, this month NMC releases a disc devoted to Elias’ music, including Electra Mourns which was first heard at the BBC Proms in 2012 (performed by the Britten Sinfonia, Nicholas Daniel and Susan Bickley, and conducted by Clark Rundell).
At the Wigmore Hall, we had the opportunity to hear the world premiere of Elias’ Oboe Quintet, performed by Nicholas Daniel and members of the Britten Sinfonia. In a pre-concert conversation with Dr Kate Kennedy, the composer did not give much away about his newest work – which was written at the request of oboist Nicholas Daniel, and commissioned by the Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, President of the Fondation Hoffmann – other than to say that Mozart’s Oboe Quartet was a looming precedent, and that he initially worried about what to do with the second violin: the answer – to make both violins ‘second fiddles’!
Certainly, the oboe predominates, initiating the opening movement – the first of five (fast, slow, fast, slow, fast, the last being an extended coda) – and leading the musical development. However, there is continuous dialogue between the five voices, with the strings sometimes engaging in conversation with the oboe and elsewhere forming a homogenous counter-voice of varying textures – angular imitative exchanges, robust chordal passages, vibrant pizzicato outbursts – to the oboe’s explorations.
Elias explains that, ‘The main ideas for the work (both melodic and harmonic) are stated in the first few bars and the rest of the piece develops organically from this material. Motifs, melodies and harmonies are ‘recollected’ throughout, often in new contexts, to provide a sense of unity.’ Notable among these ‘recollected’ elements is a plaintive viola melody (eloquently shaped by Clare Finnimore) which momentarily brings about a point of rest from which the ceaseless, sometimes agitated searching can recommence.
The scoring of the first movement is dense, but not thick, as the concertante texture ensures that the varied strands are audible, and this diversity creates a restlessness: as when the first violin’s complex double stops (powerfully projected by Jacqueline Shave) evolve into a pianissimo argument between rapid pizzicato and the oboe’s feverish staccato stuttering, only to undergo further transformation into thundering repeated down bow chords against which Daniel’s powerfully focused, sustained oboe tone held its own. There is both refinement and concentration in the way in which the musical arguments grow, the repetitions and reminiscences underpinned by a strong sense of organic rhythmic development.
A viola pedal leads into a shorter, lyrical movement in which melody and timbre – the oboe’s improvisatory excursions and ethereal string harmonics – take precedence over forward momentum. A fluttering, jittery scherzo-like movement punctuated with stabbing sforzandos pushes forward once more, fragmenting the material into frenetic pizzicato scurries and elaborate oboe snatches. Then, comes calm: above quiet cello trills, the first violin and, subsequently, viola share with the oboe a beautiful lyrical statement, from which the oboe takes flight in an unaccompanied cadenza-like episode. Slow string chords resume and build towards a climactic intensity, the stratospheric oboe challenged by high, tight cello pizzicatos, before memories of the scherzo return. Closure comes in the form of reflection, rather than resolution, as the oboe strives ever higher, and quieter. No wonder Daniel took a deep breath before the final, whispered call, at the instrument’s uppermost extreme.
Mozart’s C minor String Quintet K.406 began life as the C minor Serenade for wind octet K.388. The key is unusual given that wind serenades were typically commissioned for specific outdoor and celebratory events, and so tended to be light-hearted and festive in character; perhaps Mozart made his arrangement, for a smaller string ensemble, to ensure the longevity of an occasional piece. Given these hybrid origins it is perhaps unjust to quibble about the form in which the quintet was presented here – with Daniel replacing Jacqueline Shave as ‘first violin’, as Dorothea Vogel joined the ensemble as second viola – but I found that the presence of the oboe lessened the austere intensity that a dark, homogenous string sound would have engendered.
The Allegro was certainly driven by rhythmic urgency (although the intonation of the opening unison theme was a little unsettled) and the relaxation offered by the warm second theme was short-lived. When this theme returned in the recapitulation, now in the tonic minor, the plangent tone of the oboe did add to the pathos of the melodic suspensions above the strings’ anxiously murmuring accompaniment. The Andante lilted persuasively, and as the oboe descended to lower realms it was interesting to hear the mellowness of the blend achieved with the rich viola tone. But, again, I felt that the oboe’s contrasting timbre ‘lightened’ the emotional temperature of the rhythmically inventive Menuetto and disturbed the intended balance of the Trio, in which Mozart silences the second viola and writes for string quartet. However, the mix of wind and string colours further enlivened the striking juxtapositions of the variations which form the concluding Allegro, and the oboe’s piercing brightness added exuberance to the C major resolution, reminding us of the quintet’s origins.
It was perhaps only in the opening work, Finzi’s Interlude for oboe and string quartet, that the oboe was truly integrated within the texture, rather than assuming the role of ‘leader’ or obbligato solo voice. The Interlude was first performed at the Wigmore Hall in March 1936 by Leon Goossens, the work’s dedicatee, and the Menges Quartet, and was originally intended to form part of a larger work, presumably a concerto. Its origins are present in its scale, for this is a substantial and impassioned work, lasting almost fifteen minutes, characterised by extended melodic lines and, at times, a quasi-symphonic texture. Finzi’s distinctive nostalgia is present from the first, in the long, sighing descents which are guided by the cello’s stepwise falls, and the inconclusive harmonic world dominated by sevenths and ninths, and juxtapositions of major and minor modes. Once again, the introspective intensity of Daniel’s sustained line was compelling.
This programme can be heard again on 21 April at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich; on 22 April at the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton; an on 25 April at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge.