Music of Today – Bayan Northcott

Sonata for Solo Oboe, Op.1
Concerto for Horn and Ensemble, Op.8

Gordon Hunt (oboe)

Laurence Davies (horn)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Christopher Austin

Bayan Northcott in conversation with Julian Anderson, Music of Today’s Artistic Director

Reviewed by: Robert Hugill

Reviewed: 30 September, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The first concert in the latest season of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s admirable Music of Today season.

Bayan Northcott (born 1940) is principally known as a journalist and writer on music, but he also has a second career as a composer. This Music of Today concert provided a useful introduction to anyone not familiar with Northcott’s music.

Northcott is a self-taught composer, having studied English at Oxford. In his spoken introduction he explained that, having never learned an instrument properly, in his 20s the music that he wanted to compose was far too difficult for the technique he had acquired by then. So his Opus 1, the Sonata for Solo Oboe, was completed as late as 1978. It was in this piece that he began to discover the characteristic melodic shapes that he has continued to use and develop throughout his composing career.

The Sonata for Solo Oboe is a relatively short, but concentrated work in three movements. The first is a brief sonata form movement, with angular melodic outlines and making good use of the oboe’s characteristic melancholy. The central movement is a slow aria, an endless stream of melody, which led back to the shepherd boy’s piping at the opening of Act Three of Tristan. The final movement is a witty rondo, which ends on a dying fall. It is a demanding work and was given a confident and characterful performance by Gordon Hunt, the principal oboe of the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The second piece, the Concerto for Horn and Ensemble, was written for the New York-based Speculum Musicae over a long period, from 1990 to 1998, and in style is a deliberate reaction against Minimalism. It is written for horn plus an ensemble of 10 instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass, flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, percussion and piano) and opens with an Adagio of dark chords followed by a long exposition before the horn enters on high note. The soloist is more a ‘first amongst equals’, much given to long lyric lines over busier orchestral textures. The percussion part is significant, without ever dominating the ensemble. The second movement begins with a long peroration for the horn accompanied by disjointed fragments from the orchestra creating some haunting, transparent textures. This leads to a scherzo in which the horn gradually climbs from its lowest to highest register. With trills and fanfares the orchestral textures increase in density and as the tempo increases the horn winds up to a bravura climax. Suddenly the mood evaporates leaving the horn to recapitulate the final lament over eerie frozen chords. The finale consists of a set of variations over a ground bass, a slow stately dance that is constantly interrupted by the horn. With each interruption the ground bass is disturbed and changed. Gradually tension builds and textures get denser until the triumphant close with the horn dominating over an apotheosis involving tam-tam and bells.

The Concerto is a strong, imaginative piece; there were moments when I found it overly controlled and wished that it would break out. It received a persuasive performance with superb playing from Laurence Davies, principal Horn of the Philharmonia, but I wished he had brought a little more bravura to the showier passages. Christopher Austin was a masterly conductor of all the score’s intricacies, ensuring excellent balance and revealing the composer’s transparency and delicacy of texture.

During his spoken introduction, Northcott lamented that as a journalist he has little time for composing. On this showing he is a composer with an interesting voice, slightly out of step with his contemporaries, welcome as such, and one can only hope that he will find more time to write music.

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