REVIEW: Royal College of Music Wind Ensemble

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Coffee Concert at Brighton Dome / Corn Exchange on Sunday January 24 (11am). Janáček, Mladi (Youth); Beethoven (arr Robin O’Neill), Piano Sonata No 8 in C minor Op 13 ‘Pathetique’; Richard Strauss, Serenade in Eb Op 7 for 13 instruments; Mozart, Serenade in C minor K 388.

It’s no use being a musical purist at a classical wind ensemble event. Wind players like playing whatever they can of the best music around, whichever instrument is was composed for – within common sense and reason. So when they pinch a famous Beethoven Piano Sonata to run off and play with in the street or at the fair, you’d better not get too precious and see great piano music as sacrosanct!

Composers were happy to play along: no fee, but it was free advertising. You can’t generally lug a piano down to the shops or onto the village green. And a good tune can still appeal and turn the head or heart whether you whistle or blow it instead.

So Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata – find it everywhere on the classic popular Piano Sonata sampler starter albums – was seized on with informed intent by arranger Robin O’Neill for the Royal College players to give to their audiences. And what did it impart on Sunday?

Something inevitably more spicy and fruity than could a piano. Yet preserved, thrown into relief, even sometimes enhanced through the unorthodoxy of the wind sound, was the unravelling tension of the introduction, the fevered urgency and verve of the opening movement, the sonority of the emollient middle one, and the finale had its gusto and punch.

Winds thrive in the Pathetique’s particular keys and the extra available colour scored in the finale where the sound of O’Neill’s chosen oboe made the main theme plaintive and even haunting – not generally a slant a pianists take on this bravura movement – and showed the other-shaded regions into which orchestration can take piano music.

The starting allegro, however, threw up a slight issue over the adopted fast tempo. It left the upper instruments unable to articulate in full some of the fastest right-hand piano passages. Living in the moment and going for it on the edge is risky fun, especially behind closed doors, but here out in the open this perhaps needlessly gave piano music lovers a reservation and a gripe.

Other Beethoven Sonatas in suitable wind keys (ie mainly the flat ones) could prove worth the treatment. Listen and suggest your own possibilities.

This was only the second season of the Coffee Concerts’ string lovers’ peer into the treasure trove of wind ensemble music, and there await some cherished arrangements of other instruments’ music. Memorably for us, Mozart in his own time came in for the treatment Beethoven’s Pathetique got here, especially his opera highlights – a common practice he even parodied himself with legendary effect in the finale of Don Giovanni.

If you can sing it, a wind instrument can carry it, and Mozart wrote little that cannot be sung. And so on Sunday came the second of his three great Wind Serenades to be featured at these concerts – the three that set the standard and laid down the inspiration for all since. It closed the Coffee Concert, and with such perfection on the paper in front of them the RCMWE could do no wrong. Chris Darwin’s ever-enlightening programme notes outlined some of the invention and mastery hiding behind, or actually engineering, the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic glories to be heard.

Where wind music composition could progress to some 144 years later was presented with Janáček’s opening Mladi, and who more appropriate than these young players to persuade us of the 70-year-old composer’s distinctive facility and daring in evoking and picturing youth. The unexpected combination of flute, oboe, horn, bassoon and bass clarinet made everything compelling in music that continually engaged, surprised and delighted.

Following the interval came a supreme result of Mozart’s inspiration upon a succeeding master of instrumentation. In rich and sophisticated sound contrast to Mozart’s market square or banquet band, Richard Strauss casts 13 instruments, a conventional orchestra double wind section, in a single leisurely movement, touching and beguiling, yet infuriatingly short − though disarming in its sensuality.

Here, lead oboist David Hasler sang himself into the notebook as a name to be in future demand, and Caitlin Stock, in her only appearance of the concert, showed how improbably a diminutive contra-bassoonist, without a lateral periscope, can manage to read her music around the bulk double chimney of her instrument.

The RCMWE sat in two curved broadside rows for the Strauss piece and in an arc for the Janáček; they stood in an arc for the Beethoven and Mozart. The only pity was that after the octet bowed and left after the concluding Mozart, all 16 musicians who took part did not return to take a collective final bow after that. Their morning had been that gratefully received, by the second successive Coffee Concert sell-out audience.

Richard Amey

The concluding Coffee Concerts this season (Sundays, 11am; NB: unreserved tickets):

Two of our leading young quartets in this country, both now frequent radio broadcasters – book and arrive early!

February 21: Elias String Quintet – Sarah Bitlloch, Donald Grant violins; Martin Saving, viola; Marie Bitlloch, cello. Haydn Opus 54 No 2 in C; Britten No 1 in D Op 25; Mendelssohn No 2 in A minor.

March 27: Heath Quartet – Oliver Heath, Ceris Jones, violins; Gary Pomeroy, viola; Christopher Murray, cello. Mozart, Adagio & Fugue in C minor K546; Tchaikovsky Quartet No 1 Op 22; Ravel Quartet in F major.

See Heath and the Coffee Concert in action here:

http://new.livestream.com/brightondome/heathquartet/images/7855030

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