Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Poulenc, Handel, Elspeth Brooke & Previn [Wigmore Hall]

Trio Sonata in F
Elspeth Brooke
The Homing Call [world premiere tour]

Members of Britten Sinfonia [Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Sarah Burnett (bassoon) & Huw Watkins (piano)]

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 25 January, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Britten Sinfonia’s “At Lunch” series focuses on particular instrumental combinations. On this occasion it was satisfying to see the wind players get their chance to shine with a trio format that has inspired energetic works from Poulenc and André Previn.

Countering these was the concert’s commission, a ten-minute piece from Elspeth Brooke that Nicholas Daniel enhanced with a helpful pre-performance talk. Set in three movements, its purpose is to examine aspects of city life, particularly those of meeting and missing people, encountering insensitivity, and enjoying green spaces while battling with traffic noise. Brooke achieves these aims with a commendably descriptive series of musical brushstrokes. The terse opening statements give a vivid picture of motorists driving on the brakes. When much-warmer music emerges it was easy to imagine turning away from hustle and bustle to the relative calm of a park (from Piccadilly to Green Park perhaps!). There are references to jazz, too – and a clever use of silence, giving the music sentences and paragraphs.

The musicians began the concert with Poulenc’s sunny and humorous Trio. The latter quality was not always to the fore but the performance was never less than involving. The outer movements had an energetic appeal through flourishes of melody, with a perky ‘signing off’ at the end of each. Strong lyricism emerged in the slow movement, notable for Daniel’s purity of tone and turn of phrase.

The inclusion of a Handel trio-sonata illustrated how the combination of oboe, bassoon and keyboard is far more established than one might think. Daniel helpfully put its origins in the Baroque period into perspective. This particular sonata was attributed to Handel, clinched by the quality of the writing for oboe. The principal issue for the players, however, was that of balance, for although Huw Watkins was extremely receptive to the wind players’ melodies, he was on occasion too far in the background. That said, all three players showed commendable control in the Largo, which carried an airy elegance, while the taxing semiquavers for bassoon in the second-movement Allegro were clearly defined by Sarah Burnett.

Daniel spoke of his affection for André Previn’s Trio, written in conjunction with the International Double Reed Society, which holds its annual conventions close to the Mexican border. In an amusing aside he revealed the gatherings are notable for their margaritas! Previn’s work has something of the cocktail about it, with invigorating fast music that goes with a swing, buoyed by often-quirky melodies. The first movement (marked ‘Lively’) is a march, the third exactly the ‘Jaunty’ that it is marked, Watkins delivering his bursts of C major with considerable bravura. The work’s soft-centre (‘Slow’) had the odd pang, Daniel exploiting its melancholy.

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