Oboe and Strings take centre stage with the Britten Sinfonia Soloists

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Britten, Finzi, Elgar, Mozart, Schumann (arr. Matthews): Britten Sinfonia Soloists: Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Jacqueline Shave (violin), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello),  Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 12.6.12 (GPu)

Britten: Six Metamorphoses after Ovid
: Prelude and Fugue
: Phantasy Quartet Op.2
: Andante and Allegro
: Oboe Quartet
, arr. Colin Matthews: Mondnacht

From the moment that the ever-excellent Nicholas Daniel took the stage alone and began his unpretentiously eloquent spoken introduction to Britten’s Six Metamorphoses for solo oboe any possible barrier between performers and audience disappeared. What followed was a delightful concert in which the remarkable rapport, the intense mutuality of listening amongst these four members of the Britten Sinfonia communicated itself and, most importantly, the music to a smallish but (rightly) very appreciative audience.

Nicholas Daniel’s performance of Britten’s sequence was unexaggeratedly expressive, not least in the opening piece, ‘Pan’. Phaeton’s ride across the sky was well paced, witty and then poignant; the grief of Niobe had the slightly cold grandeur of neoclassical funerary sculpture without forfeiting human feeling; for all his divinity there were noisily human sounds of revelry in the picture/narrative of Bacchus, while the musical self-reflexivity, both at the relatively superficial level of echo effects and in deeper patterns of structure, which characterise ‘Narcissus’ were very well articulated. Another watery piece, full of liquid sounds, ‘Arethusa’ closed the sequence with a splendid embodiment of the nymph’s experience ‘hidden in misty darkness’ as Ovid makes her put it (translated by Arthur Golding) and, as Alpheus sought her, ‘a chill cold sweat my sieged limbs oppressed, and down apace / From all my body streaming drops did fall’. Daniel showed us just what an effective and evocative musical storyteller Britten is in these remarkable pieces, and what good music he has made out of his implicit analogy between the recurrent metamorphic motif of Ovid’s great poem and the seemingly bare fact that it is of the very nature of music to proceed by transforming the materials with which it begins.

Daniel was replaced on stage by the string trio of Jacqueline Shave, Clare Finnimore and Caroline Dearnley for Finzi’s Prelude and Fugue, its bitter sweet dissonances somewhat Purcellian, even if its contrapuntal structures are more than a little Bachian. The expressive piquancy of much of the music, bound up with both its fascinating harmonic effects and the ‘regularity’ of its counterpoint, were fully weighed by the players and the assurance with which ‘voices’ were exchanged was a delight to hear. Without wishing to denigrate either of her very accomplished colleagues, the viola work of Clare Finnimore gave particular pleasure, full of gorgeously dark tones but nimble.

Nicholas Daniel rejoined the trio for the last piece in the first half, Britten’s Phantasy Quartet Op.2. It is extraordinary to think that this powerful piece was written when the composer was only nineteen! Again we are, metaphorically at least, back with the viol music of Purcell and his predecessors, insofar as Britten’s composition grew out of his responses to Walter Willson Cobbet’s encouragement of new compositions loosely in the manner of the Elizabethan viol ‘fancy’ (although Britten’s piece has plenty abouty it that is thoroughly ‘classical’). For much of its length Britten’s piece juxtaposes the strings’ (and particularly the cello’s) insistence on a marching motif against more lyrical writing for the oboe, with the sense of a struggle to take control and dictate the direction of the music. The long central section for strings alone was exquisitely played and the performance was particularly effective in bringing out the overall arch-like structure of the music.

The second half of the concert opened with another – very different piece – by another nineteen year old composer: it is thought to have been written for performance at Worcester Glee Club and was first published only quite recently. It survives in separate instrumental parts in the British Library (the oboe part is headed ‘Xmas music’!). Its two movements are pretty straightforward but charming, a lyrical andante with some attractive melodic writing for the oboe and a dancing scherzo with a familial resemblance to Mendelssohn. There are just a few distinctively Elgarian touches, and even if no great claims can be made for the piece, it is well worth an occasional hearing – especially when played as well as it was on this occasion.

It was followed by music of an altogether higher order – Mozart’s marvellous Oboe Quartet. Quite apart from the quality of writing in each of the movements – such as the delightful four-part imitative writing in the opening allegro or the remarkable passage in the last movement, when the oboist’s florid line in 4/4 is played over the strings emphatic 6/8 rhythms – the quartet’s power resides in its emotional weight and its emotional transitions, in its larger shape. The first movement, played here with great vivacity, is full of sparkling and infectious joy, a four way conversation, wittily and intelligently conducted, which breathes the very pleasure of life. What a shock then to have it followed by the heart-rending adagio in D minor, a lament for the loss of such joys,  quasi-operatic in its writing for the oboe (Nicholas Daniel again was outstanding). Then, with a startling abruptness, and a seeming ease, all that gravity is made to disappear in the sheer playfulness of the rondeau; the transition from the second to this last movement is a great moment, effected with utter simplicity. Throughout this deceptively complex quartet the interplay between the four instrumentalists was conducted at a high level, a sense of disciplined fluidity characterising all aspects of the playing.

The programme finished with what Nicholas Daniel described as “a built-in encore”: the arrangement of Schumann’s lovely Mondnacht (from Der Liederkreis) made by Colin Matthews, which captures all the haunting quality of the original, a real ‘song without words’. The string textures perhaps even outdo Schumann’s piano writing in their evocation of shimmering moonlight and the whole captures the still, yearning rapture of Schubert’s setting of Eichendorff’, the moment when, in imagination at least, ‘der Himmel, Die Erde still geküßt’ (the sky quietly kissed the earth). Matthew’s faithful, but imaginative and resourceful, arrangement doesn’t simply make the oboe ‘replace’ the voice and the strings the piano accompaniment; it is subtler than that in its effects, and that subtlety was relished by these performers who, here as throughout their programme, played with a unanimity of purpose and sensitivity to both score and one another that were a privilege to hear.

Glyn Pursglove