Wigmore Mondays – Apollon Musagète Quartet play Haydn & Arensky

Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski & Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in D major Op.64/5 Lark (1790)

Arensky String Quartet in A minor Op.35 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 3 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you want a piece of chamber music for a bright spring day, look no further than Haydn’s utterly charming Lark quartet. The fifth in a set of six written for Johann Tost, a violin player from Haydn’s court orchestra, the ‘Lark’ is bright and very breezy. The first violin takes on the role of the bird, soaring above the other three instruments in the first movement () and then enjoying the role of a vocal soloist in the second movement (10:55), essentially an aria.

In this performance the Apollon Musagète Quartet allowed Haydn’s melodies all the room they needed, except for the end of the first movement which became a bit too fast. In the third movement Minuet – a predecessor of Beethoven’s scherzo (16:14) they dug in a little more. For the last movement, a brilliantly played torrent of notes issued forth from Paweł Zalejski’s violin, rushing the whole way through as the other instruments battled manfully to keep up.

The sudden change of mood for Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 was palpable. Arensky was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and a close friend of Tchaikovsky, and although his music has never enjoyed the popularity of these two Russian heavyweights, at its best it has great appeal. Rimsky wrote him off as a composer, but this String Quartet is one of his finest works. A darker piece, it was originally written for violin, viola and two cellos, but in this performance the Apollon Musagete used the conventional quartet make-up.

The first movement was dark, its solemn intonations speaking of Russian liturgy rather than intimate chamber music, serving as a memorial for Tchaikovsky. The quartet captured its brooding thoughts (23:13) but allowed more light to seep into the outlook as the piece progressed.

The second movement (34:03), a set of variations on Tchaikovsky’s Legend, is often played separately in an arrangement for string orchestra, and the Apollon Musagète showed how these big, bold variations could easily be projected for the bigger form. They demonstrated great aptitude for the quick fire variations (36:23) and (close to 39:24) but showed the slow theme and its other slower, minor key counterparts plenty of time, especially in the final variation from 46:25. The music may have been downbeat on these occasions but still had the power to console.

The finale is a strange comparison of dark liturgical intonation (48:01) and a sudden burst of folk song (49:30), which eventually wins the day. When it did here at the Wigmore, the effect was thoroughly convincing and consolation had ultimately been found in this fine performance.

Further listening

In summing up Arensky’s best achievements as a composer the Wigmore Hall note omitted to mention his wonderful Piano Trio no.1, part of a Spotify playlist including piano music and the Quartet played here.

Wigmore Mondays – Brentano String Quartet play Haydn and Britten

BRENTANO QUARTET - Misha Amory/ viola, Serena Canin/violin (glasses), Nina Lee/cello, Mark Steinberg/violin (glasses) www.http://brentanoquartet.com/

BRENTANO QUARTET – Misha Amory/ viola, Serena Canin/violin (glasses), Nina Lee/cello, Mark Steinberg/violin (glasses) www.http://brentanoquartet.com/

Wigmore Hall, London, 7 March 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072hw4q

Available until 6 April

What’s the music?

Haydn – String Quartet in F sharp minor, Op.50/4 (1787) (20 minutes)

Britten – String Quartet no.3, Op.94 (1975) (27 minutes)

Spotify

The Brentano String Quartet have not yet recorded this music, but other versions can be accessed via the playlist below, in case you can’t get to the broadcast:

About the music

Haydn wrote nearly 70 string quartets, but he was one of those composers incapable of writing the same thing twice. He also had a bit of a penchant for exploring relatively rare keys, and so this quartet, the only one he wrote in F sharp minor, occupies a special place.

It was part of a present for King Frederick William II of Prussia, to whom he had already sent his ‘Paris’ symphonies (nos.82-87) – receiving a ring in return. Haydn decided to send six string quartets, known as the ‘Prussian’ quartets – which continue to show his development as a composer in this relatively new form. The F sharp minor example is not as dark as some of the works in this key, though it does have some idiosyncratic moments described below.

Britten’s third numbered string quartet – his fifth and last to be published in the medium – is a direct product of the composer’s ailing health in 1975. With his capacity for work dwindling but not unbowed, it was suggested to him – in all seriousness by his friend Hans Keller – that if he wrote for less staves on the manuscript score he would be able to write more music.

He therefore completed a dedication for his friend, but as Keller recounts in his recent book, Britten: Essays, Letters and Opera Guides, the thought had been in his mind for some while. After a protracted discussion on form and sonata structure, Britten said to his friend, ‘One day, I’ll write a string quartet for you’. What he completed is something of a Divertimento – a wide ranging term that can apply from a short multi-movement piece to something as substantial as Mozart’s Divertimento for string trio, K563. The implication is that Britten wanted the freedom the form gave him.

With the Amadeus Quartet already enthusiastic exponents of his work, Britten took up the challenge with the help of the group and his assistant, composer Colin Matthews, who helped write much of the music from the piano. Although the Amadeus and Britten ran through the piece in private, he did not live to hear the public’s thoughts on the piece, for the premiere took place just over two weeks after his death.

The last movement of the quartet was written in its entirety in Venice, where Britten was still well enough to go on holiday, and perhaps inevitably it takes its lead from Death in Venice for its musical material. These are thought to be a present in musical form for Peter Pears. The final chord was a matter of some conjecture, and Britten changed it – for in the words of Colin Matthews, he wanted the work to ‘end on a question’.

For more thoughts on Britten’s last full work, visit the Good Morning Britten blog entry

Performance verdict

The Brentano Quartet were notable for their accuracy of tuning and ensemble in this concert but at times some of the raw emotional elements of the music were not necessarily close at hand.

The Haydn was extremely well played but did not have a freshness or spontaneity of the best Haydn performances. It was however impressive for the way they found the inherent darkness in the music, especially the finale, which had a grim determination. The slow theme and variations that make up the second movement could perhaps have enjoyed more variety between each one.

The Britten reached further emotionally, and the beautifully played last movement was a fitting finale. The Brentano were also very effective in the two faster movements, finding the right level of aggression. The rippling textures of the outer movements were beautiful too, recognising the very unusual colours Britten achieves in this music. Britten’s quartets travel internationally now – they were very much confined to this country for a while – and it is intriguing to hear them played from afar. This performance did the Third Quartet justice.

What should I listen out for?

Haydn

1:21 – the first four notes are key in the first movement of this quartet, for they form the basis of everything that follows – a bit like the repeated note motif in Beethoven’s Symphony no.5 but in a very different mood. Here the outlook is quite sombre, though the violin is positive. The first section is repeated (2:55), then at 4:25 the four note theme moves into development mode, before Haydn brings it back in original form at 5:37. Then he shifts the key to F sharp major at 6:22, and there is a notable upturn in mood.

7:31 – after the relative strife of the first movement the second begins in a pure and rather lovely form. A simple theme is presented before Haydn subjects it to several variations, but the peace doesn’t last and things take a darker turn at 9:30, the cello moving into its lowest register. At 10:55 the sunshine returns but is still affected by the music prior to it, and sure enough the minor key returns (12:34) – before Haydn moves once again to the major key for the next variation (13:16). The movement ends in a sudden full stop.

15:14 – the third movement, as is tradition, is a Minuet­ – but this one is a bit different as Haydn sets it in F sharp major, the most difficult of all keys for string players. It has a strange air about it, and some sudden loud bits do not help the mood of anxiety. At 16:45 a trio section starts, slipping into the minor key and feeling more vulnerable as a result. The Minuet music returns at 18:06, but doesn’t fully ease the tension.

19:10 – the mood of the quartet gets even darker for its finale, an austere fugue – which is where each part comes in at regular intervals playing slightly altered versions of the same tune. It makes a busy sounding texture, which Haydn works ingeniously until a sudden end, the finale only two minutes long.

Britten

23:54 – immediately in this work there is a sense of otherworldly mystery. In the third quartet Britten picks up where Death in Venice left off, the first violin using the same conversational style that Britten assigned to Aschenbach,(e.g. 25:14) the other instruments painting pictures of the undulating waters of the city’s canals. There is an intense period of contemplation that runs through this movement, subtitled Duets – because Britten tends to divide the quartet equally as the music unfolds

30:34 – the second movement (Ostinato) arrives with a jolt, and though its statements often end on a chord built on C – one of Britten’s favourite tonalities – it often sounds dissonant and unfeeling. There is a central section where brief respite is found, but it does not last long.

33:56 – when the violin takes the lead in this movement, marked Solo, it does so as a leader in prayer and meditation, and the other three instruments stand considerately in the sidelines. As the movement closes Britten reaches a radiant calm.

38:40 – either side of this moving section are two gruff, defiant scherzos, Britten writing closer to the style of Shostakovich but seeming also to shake his fist at the approach of Death. This second scherzo emphatically bursts the bubble created by the violin in the middle movement.

41:09 – the final movement – subtitled Recitative and Passacaglia – has perhaps the strongest sense of inevitability in late Britten. It begins with thoughts from the solo instruments, using the conversational style of the first movement. Then the Passacaglia takes hold (44:05). It is both sure footed and sublime, every repetition of the gently rising phrase feeling like a slow but sure step towards another world. That it ends on a question is something of a masterstroke, for after the serenity of the E major chord is realised in harmonics (50:33), Britten still has questions in his life and beliefs that remain unanswered. Ending on the ambiguous chord speaks volumes.

Encore

53:03 – a difficult call to make, doing an encore – but the Brentano chose nicely, opting for the first fugue from J.S.Bach’s The Art of Fugue (3 minutes). This is also reproduced on the Spotify playlist.

Further listening

Where to go after Britten’s final thoughts? It’s a very tricky question to answer, so how about some late or final thoughts from other composers? Included at the bottom of the playlist are Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no.32, Schubert’s last String Quartet and the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony no.10:

Wigmore Mondays – Denis Kozhukhin – Out of Doors

denis-kozhukhin
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 22 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b071774c

Available until 24 March

What’s the music?

Haydn – Piano Sonata in D major, HXVI:24 (1773) (10 minutes)

Brahms – Theme and Variations in D minor (1860) (10 minutes)

Liszt – Benediction du Dieu dans la solitude (1847) (16 minutes)

Bartók – Out of Doors (1926) (14 minutes)

Spotify

Denis Kozhukhin has recorded the Haydn sonata but not any of the other works in this repertoire. In case you are unable to hear the radio broadcast the below playlist contains legendary recordings of the Brahms (Radu Lupu), the Liszt (Claudio Arrau) and Andreas Haefliger’s account of the Bartók:

About the music

Haydn is acknowledged as the godfather of so many forms that became the norm in classical music from the late 1700s onwards. As well as the symphony and the string quartet, he left a great body of piano sonatas that are fresh, original and ground breaking. Later examples from Beethoven and Schubert would surely not have been written were it not for works such as the D major example here.

The Brahms Theme and Variations is actually an arrangement of the second movement of his String Sextet no.1 – and transcribes for piano effortlessly, so much so that the listener would think it was a piano original. This was in order for it to be played by Clara Schumann, who received the score as a forty-first birthday present in 1860.

Liszt wrote his Benediction as part of a cycle of ten pieces for piano called Harmonies poétiques et religeuses in 1847. It is a relatively long, single span of contemplation, and in it the composer writes music that could be seen as an early pointer towards the so-called ‘impressionism’ of Debussy and Ravel. So often known for writing barnstorming piano pieces, Liszt takes his foot off that particular pedal for once.

Liszt’s fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók wrote his short set of five pieces, Out of Doors, in 1926. As its name suggests it is a celebration of the Hungarian countryside, by raucous day – pipes, drums and chases – and by atmospheric night, where the sounds of amphibious creatures can be heard in some of his exquisite nocturnal picture painting.

Performance verdict

From this concert it is very clear that Denis Kozhukhin is a special talent. The well-designed hour of music moved almost seamlessly from the simplicity of Haydn to the brazen antics of the Bartók with almost no join.

Kozhukin’s Haydn was lovely, the D major sonata receiving an airy performance with plenty of rubato – which means a stylish way of letting the music breathe – so that the rhythms were not too rigid.

The Brahms was similarly magical in the quieter passages, allowing Kozhukhin to use an imposing tone when the music returned to the minor key. This was a performance flying in the face of the obvious technical difficulties presented by the composer – and the same could be said for the Liszt, reaching moments of hypnotic beauty in its outer sections.

Kozhukhin took his time here, creating and maintaining the mood of contemplation, holding the atmosphere while easily managing the fiendishly difficult writing for the right hand. In the Bartók he found a good balance between percussive power and the primitive, folksy material that the composer brings to the surface. As a result Out of Doors felt like a celebration, entertaining and energetic, but with an added chill to the night pieces.

What should I listen out for?

Haydn

1:10 – the piece starts with a flourish in the right hand, one that recalls the sonatas of Scarlatti – as BBC Radio 3 announcer Fiona Talkington points out. It is a fresh tune that twinkles with the accompaniment that Haydn chooses, with very little bass. As is customary the first section is repeated (2:14) before at 3:20 Haydn starts to develop his main idea, moving it around harmonically. This is brief – as at 4:25 we hear the main idea again.

5:47 – the slow movement, which is immediately quite sombre and preoccupied. It is in the style of an aria, as though an imaginary singer were taking the line Haydn gives to the right hand. It is a brief but poignant movement, lost in thought towards the end. Haydn emerges from the quiet mood, leading straight into…

8:54 – the last movement, a short structure bright in tone and with an amicable tune. The end is rather nicely done.

Brahms

11:44 – Brahms begins with a grand statement. The first statement of the tune is given to the right hand, while the left plays arpeggiated chords. It is a big tune – and the first of six variations starts at 13:09, still in the minor key. By 15:38 the music is worked up and full of darkly coloured passion, but then Brahms slips effortlessly into the major key and a lighter outlook (16:54), from where Kozhukhin leads to a radiant variation. At 20:04 the austere minor key returns, but Brahms still finished in the major key, settling the strife experienced earlier.

Liszt

22:35 – Benediction du Dieu dans la solitude (God’s blessing of solitude) is a radiant performance of a piece that begins with a very long melodic phrase. It is quite unusual for Liszt in having very few moments of fire and brimstone, and instead achieves a kind of ecstasy of contemplation. The key – F sharp major – is key to this, the black keys somehow much more mystical than the white on this occasion! There are two central sections – both calming influences (28:39 and 30:58) before the original material returns (32:28). We hear all three tunes before the piece closes softly.

Bartók

39:03 – With Drums and Pipes – an exuberant if heavy start, low on the piano. This is almost an early precedent of rock music with its pounding rhythms!

40:40 – Barcarolla – a slower dance that flows nicely but which sounds uneasy, as though the direction of the boat on the water is uncertain.

43:10 – Musettes – this is rustic, dance-based material, where a lot of the tunes sound as though they are packed with wrong notes (they aren’t!) It makes them strangely charming.

46:05 – The Night’s Music – a classic example of a Bartók night setting. The music closes in on itself, and in the distance some animal / insect noises can be heard, disturbing the night’s piece when they get closer or make sudden noises, such as when Kozhukhin slams the upper end of the piano. It is an atmospheric and highly descriptive piece of music, and more than a little eerie as the sounds persist, seemingly stopping any chance of sleep.

51:11 – The Chase – a bruising encounter with the hands seemingly all over the place on the keyboard. The rhythms are deliberately inconsistent as the music hurries along, with great dissonance and surprises in both parts.

Encore

54:35 – the first encore is a sonata from Domenico Scarlatti – a relatively slow one that makes much of a trill in the right hand. It was published as Kk247 and lasts four minutes…after which point (at 59:01) we hear another sonata, this time from the Spanish composer Antonio Soler – a brighter example in D major – just the two minutes.

Further listening

At the bottom of the playlist you can hear the original Brahms Theme and Variations, written as the second movement in his String Sextet no.1. You can then hear another set of variations – on a theme of Haydn – as well as trying to second guess where Liszt was heading, in the direction of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau! Finally some more Bartók – his three movement Piano Sonata, just as raucous and unhinged as Out of Doors. Listen below:

Wigmore Mondays – Dejan Lazić plays Haydn, Shostakovich, Schumann and his own work

dejan-lazic

Dejan Lazić (piano) plays a concert of Haydn, Shostakovich, Schumann and his own Istrian Dances

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday, 18 January 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06vrk8d

Available until 17 February

What’s the music?

Haydn – Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob.XVI:52 (1794) (20 minutes)

Shostakovich – 3 Fantastic Dances Op.5 (1922) (4 minutes)

Schumann – Waldszenen Op.82 (1849) (23 minutes)

Lazić – 3 Istrian Dances Op.15a (2008) (4 minutes)

Spotify

If you cannot hear the broadcast then this attached playlist covers almost all of the repertoire. Dejan Lazić has already recorded the Haydn and Schumann, while the Shostakovich is included in a recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy:

About the music

Haydn’s late Piano Sonata in E flat (given no.52 in the catalogue by the compiler Hoboken) is one of his grandest statements for the keyboard, an imposing piece that is often regarded as having a scope well beyond the solo instrument. It has Haydn’s characteristic wit but also an impressive stature.

By complete contrast the young Shostakovich – just fourteen at the time of writing the 3 Fantastic Dances – was just striking out, and you can sense him champing at the bit in these pieces. All three last under five minutes but are great fun.

Schumann was a great writer of character pieces for the piano, and Waldszenen (Forest Scenes) is one of the finest examples of his ability to paint portraits in relatively short periods of time. A group of nine pieces, these are often played with very little in the way of a break between them, and are often understated but without losing any intensity. Originally they were headed by poetic quotations, but the shadowy set of pieces was instead published without these and were given headings instead.

Finally Lazić himself gets in on the act, his 3 Istrian Dances rather similar to the solo piano works of Bartók in their reworking of national themes. Istria is a peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, shared by Croatia, Italy and Slovenia.

Performance verdict

Arcana was not present at the Wigmore Hall on this occasion, so this appraisal was done via the BBC iPlayer. Even from that it is quite clear not just what an accomplished pianist Lazić is, but that he has a strong sense of national identity in his compositions. In the lively Istrian Dances this takes him close to the sound world of Bartók, and this energetic performance proved an invigorating final number in the concert.

Lazić clearly has affection for the works of Haydn, and although some of his phrasing was quite mannered – nothing wrong with that, but not necessarily to everyone’s taste! – his technical control was superb, and some of the rapid passagework Haydn assigns to the right hand was thrown off with aplomb. Meanwhile the slow movement of the E flat sonata had a real depth of feeling.

His Schumann was excellent, very strongly characterised and recognising the intimacy found in a lot of these short pieces, the comfort of the forest sometimes spilling over into claustrophobia. Meanwhile the impudent Shostakovich was pure fun, the sound of a young composer flexing his muscles.

What should I listen out for?

Haydn

01:54 – a grand theme to start, anticipating Beethoven in its big scale. This is one of Haydn’s most substantial sonata themes. After an elaborate development, the first half of the movement is repeated from 4:06. Then from 6:22 Haydn takes the two main themes for a walk, running through some unexpectedly far-off keys until reaching home at 8:08.

10:12 – the slow movement starts in E major, the last key you would expect Haydn to use. But then this is Haydn, who likes to throw in a surprise or two to what ought to be conventional works! It is a thoughtful, intimate theme, too, one of his more profound slow movements for piano. Then at 13:09 Haydn moves the music into the minor key, and an unpredictable section based on the main tune, but before long we return to the opening material (14:16)

16:14 – a cheeky, stop-start last movement with repeated notes in the main tune. They sound like an over eager woodpecker or something similar! With typical wit Haydn develops these, making great use of silence in between some of his phrases and introducing some really difficult runs in the right hand. Again Haydn is adventurous in the rapid development section (from 18:46) until the witty theme makes a comeback (20:13)

Shostakovich

23:42 March – Allegretto – a thoughtful but quite carefree notion to this piece, and to the right hand especially, which becomes quite frivolous.

25:08 Waltz – Andantino – a relatively gentle start is misleading, as this piece turns out to be reckless and quite impetuous at times, making the listener jump!

26:32 – Polka – Allegretto – Shostakovich shows an early mastery of the piano, and despite pronounced influences from Chopin and Scriabin there is plenty of individuality to his style here too. Cheeky but meaningful.

Schumann

27:39 – Eintritt (Entry) – an endearing privacy immediately descends on Schumann’s music, beautifully written. The harmonies are open, and the melodies subtly restless, wandering for a while.

29:45 – Jäger auf der Lauer (Hunters on the lookout) – a furtive piece, hiding in the shadows initially, then becoming a lot bolder.

31:07 – Einsame Blumen (Lonely Flowers) – quite sparse, bring a melody and relatively economical accompaniment. It is a beautiful melody though, and has a strong yearning.

33:42 – Verrufene Stelle (Haunted Place) – the quietness of the piano is laced with tension, the scene far from comfortable. The music gets more animated but quickly retreats into its shell again, scarred by what it might have seen. There is a happier ending, mind, as the music moves to a major key and peace of mind.

37:51 – Freundliche Landschaft (Friendly Landscape) – a quickfire piece, happy go-lucky in these hands, relieved after the haunting has passed.

38:55 – Herberge (Wayside Inn) – the welcoming inn is a lively place in Schumann’s description, with a warm welcome, carrying on from the happy place above.

40:54 – Vogel als Prophet (Bird as Prophet) – a fascinating, mysterious piece that leaves a mark through its distinctive melodic profile. Its foreboding message hangs on the air.

43:58 – Jagdlied (Hunting Song) – an open air call to arms. Schumann wrote a lot of hunting songs for voice and piano and piano alone, but this one is reminiscent of Beethoven in its profile and the choice of E-flat major.

46:24 – Abschied (Farewell) – initially confident but immediately thoughtful, and the rest of the piece is relatively sombre and quietly moving.

Lazić

51:52 – an arresting call to arms in the first dance, with the notes in the right hand close together, creating crunchy dissonances.

The second dance is underway at 52:40 and is equally spiky, with quickfire shots from the right hand and powerful double notes in the left. At 53:39 a languid dance makes itself known and turns in on itself softly.

The third dance gets underway at 54:39 with highly distinctive rhythms, detached and tumbling down the keyboard at times before finishing suddenly at 55:24.

Encore

56:43 – the encore is the finale of one of Haydn’s best-loved Piano Sonatas, in C major (published as HXVI:50). You can sense the composer thumbing his nose at the audience in his witty asides and false approaches to the ending, which finally arrives at 58:53.

Further listening

Having mentioned Bartók earlier it would be churlish not to include something of his for solo piano, so attached to the bottom of the concert playlist you will find the 3 Rondos, played by Zoltan Kocsis. Alternatively you could try a whole set of Mazurkas by the Polish composer Karel Szymanowski, on the album below:

Wigmore Mondays – Alexei Ogrintchouk and friends play music for oboe and string trio

Picalexei-ogrintchouk

Picture used courtesy of the BBC

Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe), Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Maxim Rysanov (viola) and Kristina Blaumane (cello) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 October 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06hjxlv

on the iPlayer until 18 November

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. Alexei Ogrintchouk has recorded the Mozart, while available versions of the Haydn, Britten and Schubert pieces are also included.

What’s the music?

Attributed to Haydn: Divertissement in B flat, HII:B4 (not known) (10 minutes)

Britten: Phantasy Quartet, Op 2 (1932) (13 minutes)

Schubert: String Trio in B flat, D471 (1816) (8 minutes)

Mozart: Oboe Quartet in F, K370 (1781) (14 minutes)

What about the music?

Often in chamber music the strings get a lot of the glory, so it is good to report on a concert where the oboe is invited to take centre stage. The instrument is on occasion associated with sad music (Midsomer Murders use it a lot!) and it is perfect for autumnal listening, but it should be remembered that the oboe is also responsible for a lot of happy music too, as Mozart’s Oboe Quartet testifies.

This piece is a beauty, seemingly free of any constraints in its outer fast movements, while the inner slow movement is short yet poignant, set in the minor key. Mozart wrote it for the virtuoso Friedrich Ramm, and composed the oboe line to sit above that of the violin, thus using the higher register of the instrument a lot.

Britten uses a wider range of colour in his Phantasy, written as a competition piece when he was at the Royal College of Music. Thanks partly to the advocacy of the legendary oboist Leon Goossens, but also to his musical craft, the piece won its competition in Paris. Set over nearly 15 minutes, it has a dramatic profile, beginning as a march that seems to process in from nothing – started by the cello – until the sweep of lyrical oboe and punchy strings together is striking.

The first piece in the concert is a two movement Divertissement attributed to Haydn but, it is not wholly certain who actually wrote it. To my slightly untrained ears it sounds like it could be earlier than Haydn, but regardless of who the composer is the music is polite and attractive, the four instruments set in close dialogue.

Schubert’s single movement for String Trio is in the same key – B flat major – and has a similar profile, though does make the most of a striking descending motif throughout. Originally Schubert wanted this to be the first movement of a bigger piece, but after sketching some bars of the slow movement he stopped writing.

Performance verdict

Over the last few years Alexei Ogrintchouk has developed from a very promising musician to an oboist right at the top of his game – and that was evident throughout a highly enjoyable concert.

The peak was undoubtedly reached in the Mozart, where he met the virtuosic demands of the piece head on but without losing the airy, lyrical approach that makes the Oboe Quartet such a charmer. The performance of the Britten dug in much more firmly, the strings encouraged to project outwards, and this they did with impressive power when the march took hold. Britten’s genius in working with small forms was evident even at this point, and not a note was wasted in the performance.

Both the Haydn and Schubert performances charmed, the Schubert nicely placed so that the strings had a brief moment in the sun – which they enjoyed, with lightness and dexterity, clearly listening to each other.

What should I listen out for?

Attrib.Haydn

2:01 – this light hearted piece begins with an oboe-led melody, while the cello supplies a chugging pulse. The music is polite and attractive. At 5:13 a central section begins, based on the melody from the start.

7:50 – a slightly slower second movement, a courtly dance – in the form of a rondo, which essentially means the same theme recurs at regular intervals. The violin and viola assume greater importance in this movement. The theme itself makes a final appearance at 11:02.

Britten

14:25 – the beginning is almost imperceptible, a little phrase from the cello which is gradually joined by the other two stringed instruments. When the oboe joins at 15:07 the tone is songful, though the spiky accompaniment continues, leaving some tension until a firm statement of the main tune at 16:12. Then a different section takes over, with heavier string writing.

20:25 – the writing now has a softer, hazy hue, as the strings enjoy a slower and more obviously lyrical section. At 22:30 a higher melody from the oboe floats above the texture.

24:52 – the main march idea makes a reappearance, striding forward purposefully – until the music fades, as though it were walking over the horizon and out of earshot.

You can read more about the Britten Phantasy on a blog entry I made two years ago here

Schubert

29:52 – the Schubert String Trio, set in one movement, begins with an attractive melody led by the violin. There is a distinctive downward sweep that is heard from 30:40, and which becomes an important part of the piece. The three instruments stay closely aligned throughout. After developing his main tune, Schubert restates it at 35:22.

Mozart

40:04 – the oboe is already high in its register when the distinctive tune of the first movement is heard, top of an extremely light texture. The strings are busy in their accompaniment. Mozart then proceeds to manipulate his memorable tune through different methods of presentation, until a slight lull at 43:53 – and the return of the main tune at 44:57.

46:44 – A slight shadow falls over the music for the second movement Adagio, where the strings are softer and the oboe a little mournful if still beautiful in its first melody. At around 48:57 the oboe is left exposed in a kind of cadenza, leading up to the thoughtful end.

49:57 – once again the brightness in this music is evident as a light hearted theme sways between oboe and strings. The oboe enjoys the recurrences of its tune, with Mozart subtly varying the accompaniment each time before finishing on the high ‘F’ of the oboe at 54:00.

Further listening

If you enjoyed the sound of the oboe, then a logical next step is a couple of orchestral pieces, added to the bottom of the playlist, that use the instrument to its fullest capabilities:

First of all is Ravel’s subtle but gorgeous Le tombeau de Couperin, the oboe taking up the first theme in the Prélude and also enjoying prominence in the slow Menuet.

Then we have Vaughan Williams’ beautiful, autumnal Oboe Concerto, heard here in a new recording from the oboist Nicholas Daniel. The wistful quality perhaps gives away the fact this piece was written in the Second World War. Daniel’s disc is reviewed on Arcana here