SCO Winds at Wigmore Hall review ****


Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists

Wigmore Hall, 12th February 2018

  • Beethoven – Sextet in E flat, Op 71
  • Poulenc – Sonata for clarinet and bassoon
  • Beethoven – Octet in E flat, Op 103

A rare opportunity for completists to hear performances of Beethoven’s Sextet and Octet written for wind instruments. Now there is enough wind repertoire, (as it were), to keep a few ensembles ticking over on the side but, generally, if you like this sort of stuff, you have to keep a beady eye open and/or hear student performances. There doesn’t seem to be a widely available recording of these works, (there is one from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe but tricky to track down it seems). So to see the specialists from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra turn up at Wigmore Hall, with a new recording in tow, was an appetising prospect, at least for the Tourist.

The Sextet may be numbered Op 71 but it is a very early work from 1796 when the grumpy one was just getting going. He dismissed it later on but he was wrong, as, apart from a few dodgy songs, (never quite mastered that surprisingly), he never wrote a dull note. Scored for two each of clarinets, bassoon and horns, it may not approach the beauty and complexity of the Octet but there is more than enough to sink your teeth (or ears) into here. There is a fascinating syncopation early on from the clarinets in the opening Adagio and a simple four note motif from clarinets and bassoons emerges in the ensuing Allegro, with a second theme coming from first clarinet, before development and recapitulation brings in the bassoons and, properly, the horns. The bassoons then do most of the lifting in the lovely Adagio in B flat major, with horns coming in for the following Menuetto. The final movement is a classic(al) Beethoven foot tapping Rondo, with a march like theme with some horn blasts at the end. It’s not rocket science, it obeys all the rules but it is still inventive given the instrumentation. And the band coped admirably with a poorly chap in the audience. halfway through

I am always momentarily intrigued by Poulenc’s music but it never really turns into much more than this I am afraid. I know you are supposed to get fired up by his choral/vocal/operatic works but it all feels a bit of a trial and suffused with Catholic guilt. And the piano stuff is a bit lightweight. He did though deliver some boppy tunes for wind instruments in his chamber works, including this Sonata for Clarinet and Bassoon, here delivered, I think, by Peter Whelan and Maximiliano Martin. Given the two instruments and Poulenc’s style there is nothing very profound going on here and indeed the audience gets to snigger at the end of the second and final movements. There are echoes of Mozartian divertimenti, Stravinsky’s appropriation of the Classical and some jazzy touches. So correct boxes ticked and some interest in the returning downwards lines in first and second movements. And the boys seemed to be having a good time.

Now the Octet really is a fascinating piece. Published as Op 103, (so near the Hammerklavier for example), it was actually written in 1792, before the Sextet and when Ludwig was only 22. Scored for two each of oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horns it might have been started in Bonn when LvB was circling around the Elector of Cologne. It was finished when he was studying under Haydn, though subsequently revised a bit with the last Presto finale replacing the original ending Rondino WoO25, (which might have been nicely squeezed in to this programme – just saying). He even took it and turned it into the String Quintet in E flat Op 4 to get it a proper audience. It is a remarkably assured piece with the sort of invention you expect in much later Beethoven chamber pieces. The opening motif is given a proper working out in the opening Allegro in a myriad of ways, the following Andante is one of those languid, sing-songy Beethoven melodies that insinuates itself effortlessly into your head. Then he writes a Scherzo. It may be labelled a Menuetto but Scherzo it is, with the influence of mentor Haydn apparent but with some uncanny foreshadowing of the kind of barnstormers Ludwig would create later on, albeit still fairly polite. The final rondo gives the horns their time to shine (though they get fulsome opportunity earlier on) and is a properly upbeat ending.

So there you have it. Music written for instruments favoured by German and Austrian courts from a time when Beethoven had to play the game and before he went all serious artist, look-at-me. But even this is so much more than the kind of burbling, bubbling, babbling wind pieces that these toffs at the time loved. A pleasure to hear, made more pleasurable by these expert interpreters. Chalk up another CD sale ladies and gentlemen of the SCO.

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