BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Roth François Leleux – Benjamin Britten & Richard Strauss

Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20
Oboe Concerto in D
Don Quixote – Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character, Op.35

François Leleux (oboe)

Tim Hugh (cello) & Lawrence Power (viola)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
François-Xavier Roth

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 21 October, 2011
Venue: St David’s Hall, Cardiff

The initial appeal of this concert was the juxtaposition of works written in the same decade of the 20th-century by the young Benjamin Britten and the aged Richard Strauss. In the end it was being blown away, as it were, by the playing of oboist François Leleux that made this concert quite unforgettable.

With the 50th-anniversary of the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem coming up next year, and various commemorative performances already programmed, it was interesting to be reminded of the extent to which Sinfonia da Requiem presaged some of what War Requiem would embrace 20 years later. It was equally curious to reflect that it owed its origin to a commission from the Japanese government to celebrate the 2,600th-anniversary of the founding of the Mikado dynasty. Britten’s use of Christian titles for the movements meant that the piece would be rejected by the Japanese, while Richard Strauss’s Festmusik was one of several others readily accepted.

François-Xavier Roth. Photograph: Celine GaudierThe first explosive bars of the ‘Lachrymosa’ suggested that François-Xavier Roth was going to take a rather uncompromising stance. As the movement unfolded at quite a sedately measured Andante, Roth appeared more concerned with pointing up the very particular instrumental colourings, notably the timbre of harps with piano, the distinctive alto saxophone and also the contrast of brass chords with woodwind. Roth handled the growing urgency with care, so that the return to the bombardment of the opening hit home, and hit hard. A suitably demonic menace characterised the central ‘Dies Irae’, while a gently rocking feel lent the aura of a berceuse to the final ‘Requiem aeternam’, all the more poignant for the irony of dying soldiers being lulled to the ultimate sleep.

By contrast, the performance that followed of Strauss’s Oboe Concerto, conceived five years later than Sinfonia da Requiem, was one of those life-enhancing experiences in which every bar is vividly imprinted on the memory. François Leleux brought a glowingly radiant tone and the most wonderfully fluent playing to bear on Strauss’s score, articulating every phrase and lovingly weighting notes as though this were not an instrument at all but the human voice. Leleux was as poetically expressive as the most accomplished of singers, the only difference being the extraordinary and apparently seamless breathing. In his disarmingly open and exuberant way he also realised the liveliest and wittiest characterisation of the music. This was just the most captivating performance imaginable. Leleux’s rapport with the orchestra was akin to chamber music; Leleux’s body-language and the sheer impact of his sound communicated with such immediacy as to invite his fellow-musicians’ total engagement. His encore, Boulevard des Capucines by Gilles Silvestrini, one of the many contemporary composers whom Leleux has persuaded to extend the oboe’s repertoire, only underlined his astonishing technique and lung-capacity. Roth sat in obvious wonder and admiration.

To say that Don Quixote paled into insignificance by comparison is to exaggerate, it was simply that Leleux was a hard act to follow. Tim Hugh’s portrayal of the colourful knight was highly accomplished, the long lyrical passages delivered with great sensitivity and control. Lawrence Power counted as luxury-casting for Quixote’s side-kick Sancho Panza. Taking over the principal’s chair, Power not only inspired the viola section to an fine display of prowess but attacked his extended solos with such panache and producing such a rich sound as to inject real vibrancy into proceedings. Roth’s conducting was as animated as ever, though there were moments which might have benefited from the incisive use of a baton: finesse of gesture is not quite enough for the full flood of Strauss. Nevertheless, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales was in strong form, with Lenny Sayers’s bass clarinet solos deserving a mention.

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