Britten Sinfonia/MacMillan Nicholas Daniel

Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.110a [arr. Rudolf Barshai from String Quartet No.8 in C minor, Op.110]
Oboe Concerto [London premiere]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36

Nicholas Daniel (oboe)

Britten Sinfonia
James MacMillan

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 18 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

A new work from one of Britain’s leading composers should be something to celebrate, but the delight of James MacMillan’s Oboe Concerto could not have been anticipated. MacMillan joined Britten Sinfonia for the first London performance of the work, following its world premiere in Birmingham three days earlier.

Nicholas Daniel took the solo part composed with his substantial tone and dexterity expressly in mind. What emerges is a playful work rich in detail and colour which deserves a firm hold in the slender repertoire of its instrument. A recurring three-note figure in the violas begins and concludes the first movement, immediately playing the rhythmic tricks that characterise much of the fast music. Initially lyrical, the oboe soon careers off in a mad jazz solo, which left Daniel looking, though not sounding, exhausted. That helter-skelter energy returns for the even-more tumultuous finale, but finest of all is the vivid landscape of the second movement Largo. Its opening moments brought to mind a dull and cold dawn, its various episodes continually reverting, appropriately enough, to a Britten-like sense of brooding bass development and salty sea-air from the violins. A moment of interplay between oboe and clarinet is a particular highlight. MacMillan could not ask for a more convincing soloist than Daniel, who clearly loves this brilliant concerto.

MacMillan’s affinity for the music of Shostakovich was celebrated in the concert’s first item. This arrangement for string orchestra is the first of five chamber symphonies adapted from selected Shostakovich’s string quartets by conductor and violist Rudolf Barshai. The first one, played here, is the Eighth String Quartet, which presents many ciphers and self-quotations for those who wish to find them. Upping the numbers (in this case from four players to twenty-four) is intermittently effective, notably in the fourth movement Largo when a single expressionless drone is held by the leader (Thomas Gould in this instance) against a repeated bullying figure from the rest of the ensemble. But the overall effect is a dilution of intensity from the original, with textures becoming more corporate than confessional due to the homogeneity of string sound. MacMillan and Britten Sinfonia initially made a virtue of this, rendering Shostakovich’s miraculous fugue on his own name a vibrato-less impression of ancient polyphony, though the lack of expressive inflection made for a rather motionless introduction. The ferocious Allegro that follows was appropriately driven, but there’s safety in numbers in Barshai’s expansion which nullifies the hair-raising terror of the quartet version. Better, though, was the final Largo – full of regret and finality from an ensemble producing an extraordinary depth of tone.

Nicholas Daniel returned to his position in Britten Sinfonia’s wind section for Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The wind and brass was the finest thing about this performance, lending breadth and richness to the otherwise frenetic activity. MacMillan kept tempos swift throughout. If the second movement lacked a little unity of ensemble, it was countered in the outer movements by exciting playing that begged for more acoustical space than the Queen Elizabeth Hall allows. Strange though that while MacMillan conducted from a recent edition of the score with so many of the music’s accumulated misprints and misreadings expunged, Britten Sinfonia played from Breitkopf’s 100-year-old parts, famously full of deviations from the composer’s original.

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