Abraxas & Thomas Bowles – 23 May

Divertimento in D, K136
Clarinet Quintet in A, K581
The Four Seasons

Abraxas with Thomas Bowles (clarinet)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 May, 2003
Venue: Recital Room, Blackheath Halls, London

The recital room is upstairs, an intimate immediate-sounding venue ideal for chamber music. Initial disconcertion at seeing tables as well as chairs, each table with a nightlight centrally placed, was soon overcome. (Such a sight suggested that listening might not be the first and only occupation of the evening.) The audience, however, was excellent! The gurgling of wine bottles being emptied has a comforting feel. Not being prepared for such an event, your reviewer was ’dry’ for the first half. A gin and tonic (note the singular) was procured during the interval.

I can tell you little about Abraxas. No programme was provided. A little something by Handel – a Sarabande I’m informed – began the evening with violinist David LePage going it alone and then being joined by his colleagues, one-by-one clumping in from their audience positions. (It’s rare that musicians make more noise than the audience!). Eventually we had a string quartet plus double bass. This opening ceremony was neither here nor there.

The first of Mozart’s ’Salzburg Symphonies’ was given with sensible tempos – moderate / flowing / not rushed. The taking of repeats was inconsistent. The group’s serious and spontaneous approach was established; each is a fine player. I thought the facial exchanges between cellist and double bassist in the Finale somewhat arch.

A change of second violinist for the Quintet – one lady for another – and the beginning of a long interval for the bassist. I wonder if Abraxas has considered re-positioning itself. With both violinists together, there were instances that whoever was No.2 was literally ’second fiddle’. With violins antiphonal (as in the old days, either for orchestras or chamber groups), and the cellist and violist in the middle with the bassist behind them – well, a whole range of possibilities opens up.

The Quintet was finely done – the all-important first movement repeat observed. Thomas Bowles is blessed with a richly mellifluous sound. He is an excellent musician too, one who integrates ’effects’ into the overall expression – attractively ’liquid’ trills and staccatos for example. Mozart’s clarinet quintet is heaven-sent. Bowles and Abraxas reminded us of its elevation in an unforced and heartfelt rendition that confided its eloquence. This was a fine calling card for the integration and sensitivity of the group.

Barber’s Adagio, advertised in Blackheath’s brochure, was not played. It’s a while since I’ve heard The Four Seasons (four violin concertos out of the 12 forming Vivaldi’s ’Harmony and Invention’ collection) – and I thoroughly enjoyed Abraxas’s vibrant rendition of it. Both ladies were required – for the two orchestral violin parts – and David LePage took the solos. This was no hair-shirt interpretation – vibrato was used and great imagination shown. LePage was both virtuoso and poet. His colleagues were clearly enjoying themselves, and this communicated to the audience. For all the off-the-cuff and light-hearted banter that the double bassist aimed at us by way of spoken introduction (wish I knew his name), Abraxas is a serious bunch of musicians. They know what they are about and have the wherewithal to bring it off.

This Four Seasons had vitality and pictorial suggestiveness. One or two things were overdone (the pizzicato exchanges in the last movement of Autumn) but the whole was brought vividly to life – the musicianship behind the caprice sustained the whole. Ultimately, core musical values is what it’s all about.

I know nothing of Abraxas’s range of repertoire or its list of engagements. Certainly it’s a group one wants to catch again, which is equally the case with Thomas Bowles.

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