Intellectual Curiosity and Musical Insight from the Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Skryabin, Britten, Colin Matthews, R. Strauss: Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Britten Sinfonia, Wigmore Hall, London, 6.2.2019. (CS)

Nicholas Daniel (c) Eric Richmond
Nicholas Daniel (c) Eric Richmond

MozartAdagio and Fugue in C minor K546
SkryabinRêverie Op.24 (arr. Colin Matthews) (world première)
BrittenTemporal Variations (arr. Colin Matthews)
Colin MatthewsPostludes for oboe, string trio and string quartet (world première, co-commissioned by Wigmore Hall, The Radcliffe Trust and NMC Recordings)
R. Strauss Metamorphosen arr. for string septet

In this excellent concert at Wigmore Hall, Colin Matthews contributed as both arranger and composer, as oboist Nicholas Daniel joined with the Britten Sinfonia for a performance which demonstrated intellectual curiosity and considerable musical insight.

The opening two items did not entirely convince, however.  I recently heard Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue at Kings Place, during an IMS Prussia Cove Sándor Végh Memorial Concert.  The sixteen musicians on that occasion were here reduced to the more conventional four (Jacqueline Shave, Miranda Dale, Clare Finnimore and Caroline Dearnley) and some of the slightly taxing ‘weightiness’ of the earlier performance was alleviated.  The Adagio was vigorous, rather than heavy, with a brooding intensity and robustly projected sound; rhythms were taut and precise.  The Fugue offered no relaxation initially, and the statements of the theme were a little unyielding; subsequently the lines weaved with more litheness, though the intonation at the close was not absolutely secure.

If it felt a bit ‘effortful’ then perhaps that’s the nature of the piece, for the original two-piano version dates from the early 1780s when Mozart was immersed in the study of counterpoint.  Skryabin’s Rêverie of 1898 promised to take us into a rather more wistful world.  We heard the work, which was the composer’s first piece for orchestra without a solo instrument, in a new arrangement by Matthews for nine strings, and the players did indeed conjure a delicate day-dreaminess which built quickly to a sensuous, climactic lushness, and then faded gently.  “Delightful, wheated in piquant harmonies and not badly orchestrated,” had been Rimsky-Korsakov’s verdict on the work, and certainly the shimmering intricacy of the ensemble sound from which individual voices emerged, and the dark driving power of the double bass (Stephen Williams) in the central section, were captivating.  But, in some ways the five-minute Rêverie was an exercise in orchestration for Skryabin, anticipating his later, more substantial orchestral compositions, and despite the evocative playing it was hard not to miss the strange, exploratory colours and timbres of the orchestral version, as Skryabin pushes the bassoon to the top or its register or pairs the woodwind in unusual combinations.

More ‘old made new’ followed.  Britten’s Temporal Variations for oboe and piano were completed on 12th December 1936 and first performed, three days later, at Wigmore Hall by Natalie Caine and Adolph Hallis.  Perhaps the hasty premiere meant that the composer did not have sufficient time for reflection and revision; but whatever prompted Britten to withdraw the work, it was not heard again until 1980.  In 1994 Nicholas Daniel suggested to Colin Matthews that the Temporal Variations might be effectively arranged for oboe and strings, and Daniel first performed the ensuing arrangement with Steuart Bedford and the English Chamber Orchestra at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival.

Here, Daniel’s commitment and clarity of conception were notable.  Playing from memory and draped in a long black coat, he made for a Prospero-like figure enclosed within the surrounding semi-circle of strings.  And, there was something compellingly theatrical, even operatic, about this performance.  Daniel has a masterful control of tone: he can effect the finest gradations from warmth to pallor, blanching the colour and body of the sound through microscopic divisions of the spectrum, then injecting strength and fullness, so that the oboe seems itself a living thing.  His playing is uncluttered; at times, at the top of the register, it acquired a flute-like purity.

From the opening statement of the recitative-like Theme to the final notes of Resolution, the tenseness of the dialogue between oboe and strings was energetically sustained.  The fanfare display of Oration brought forth a vigour from the lower strings which was both muscular and agile; then Daniel led the ensemble into the March, snatching spitefully at the fragments against snapping pizzicatos and brusque down-bows as the music lurched which a strong stamp.  Exercises, as the title suggests, makes technical demands on the soloist, but the strings are tested too and the courage of the violinists as their bows bounced from the strings creating a staccato rattle was stirring.  The disputation between cello and oboe in Commination was settled as the oboe’s suspended tone carried the ensemble into a cleansing Chorale of sombre religiosity and quiet pathos; the harmonic spirit of Shostakovich seemed to be in the air.  An airy Waltz, fresh and buoyant, with wry oboe interjections, lifted the spirits, and the mood became still more exuberant in the eccentric Polka which jerked and slithered, driven from the deep by the double bass.  Calm was restored by the controlled intensity of the repeated motifs in Resolution.

Matthews’ own voice was heard next, in the world premiere of Postludes, which Matthews has dedicated to the late Oliver Knussen.  The four movements of the work form a continuous whole which exploits contrasts and conversations between string trio, string quartet and oboe.   The musicians were arranged with Daniel and trio stage-right, quartet stage-left, the latter seated in reverse, so to speak, so that the two cellists were placed at the centre of the semi-circle.  The expansive first movement, Prelude, which opens with the string quartet, is richly inventive, ever-changing harmonic implications accruing as the lines unfold in dense linear arguments.  Colour is similarly varied, with the oboe often seeming to ride atop the string groupings, as when cascading arpeggiac pizzicati contrasted with the oboe’s soaring vibrancy.  The complexity was difficult to take in on a single hearing, and at times Daniel ‘semi-conducted’ the ensemble, before entering with a dominating explosion of oboe virtuosity. The elegant Elegiac Intermezzo brought a softening stillness, while in the Barcarolle a gentle lilt often seemed to gently cajole and tease the expected rhythmic regularity.  It was an inspired choice by Matthews to instruct the soloist to switch to cor anglais for the Epilogue, so summoning a gravity and grain perfectly fitting for the movement’s nostalgic plaintiveness.

The concert closed with a performance of the septet arrangement of Richard Strauss’s great, late lament, Metamorphosen.  In 1990, a short score came to light which indicated that Strauss had penned his initial ideas for the work for just seven strings, and a realisation was made by Rudolf Leopold.   However, whether that early draft was ever intended as a performance version is not known, and it’s a challenge for a smaller group to create the almost overwhelming nobility and grief of the full version for 23 solo players.  The Britten Sinfonia worked hard.  One might expect that the reduced forces would make it easier to give defining focus and clarity to the interweaving lines, but while the lower strings projected strongly, the violins struggled to push through the dense textures.  What was impressive was the ensemble’s grasp of the architectural magnitude and structure.  The opening tempo was not too languorous, and the phrasing of the mournful falling phrase created a sob which did not linger self-indulgently.  In the central episodes, the players pushed searchingly through Strauss’s endless avoidance of cadence, sustaining the harmonic waves in a manner which was fresh and spontaneous.  Each stage of the journey seemed inevitable, the contrasts cohering as an almost Brahmsian joyfulness contrasted with restrained religiosity.

This diverse and profound programme demanded a lot from all the performers involved, and Nicholas Daniel and the members of the Britten Sinfonia played with passionate intensity.

Claire Seymour

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