Wind Soloists of the London Philharmonic

Music for the Royal Fireworks
Suite française
Sinfonia in G minor
Sonatine No.1 (From an Invalid’s Workshop)

Wind Soloists of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin O’Neill

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 12 December, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Wigmore Hall is an ideal venue for the London Philharmonic’s “Chamber Contrasts” series, lending proceedings a familiar, informal feel.

With Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, the power of this select ensemble became immediately apparent, turned to energetic effect in the faster, forcefully driven movements but resulting in awkward phrasing in the slower sections and hindering attempts to introduce a degree of dynamic subtlety which ended up being neither originally intended nor stylistically appropriate.

As the Handel progressed, it also became obvious how intimately comfortable the wind sub-sections are with each other’s playing, with some superbly focussed duetting, especially between the broadly sonorous oboe lines. The balance, unfortunately, was woefully unregulated, with the brass and horns cumbersomely swamping the delicate wind parts. Indeed, in the last movement, the horns appeared to have slipped their lead in the manner of an unmuzzled, if highly musical, rottweiler, eager to joyously lunge at the aural jugular.

The strengths and weaknesses of this ensemble became more apparent during Poulenc’s eccentrically scored Suite française. The almost schizophrenic instrumental contrasts melded coherently, while the melodic components of the neo-renaissance writing suitrd (the Philharmonia Orchestra’s principal bassoon) Robin O’Neill’s approach to phrasing; however, what was lacking, both in this and Stravinsky’s Octet, was the sense of joy, or even frivolity, that is inherent in this music – a result, I suspect, of a lack of rehearsal time. Chief among the culprits was the harpsichordist in the Poulenc; the player did a very good impression of sight-reading the part.

Before we skate over the relatively insubstantial Donizetti, there is the need to touch on the delicate matter of that other, often overlooked but equally important, half of any performance, namely the audience. Musicians perform for our enjoyment, but the astonishing ability of concert audiences to disrupt and distract from the performers’ efforts never ceases to amaze me. For this event, we need to ask the question: Why do troupes of generally older gentlemen feel the need to mutter knowingly to themselves between, or, worse still, during movements? Is it to make us, the less-educated masses, aware that they know better than either we or the performers? Or perhaps they are partaking in medium-like conversation with the long-dead composers, confirming that all has gone according to plan? Or, more worryingly, do certain concerts attract an abnormally high concentration of eccentrically dressed individuals who start conducting the players with their balding heads bobbing dramatically into the line of sight, presumably in case the musicians find the man in a tail-coat waving a stick insufficient and turn instead to these all-knowing members of the audience.

But I digress.

We now reach the gem in this assorted programme, both in terms of piece and performance. 62 years after writing his Wind Serenade, Richard Strauss crafted his Sonatine from, as he put it, “an Invalid’s Workshop”. He hadn’t wasted those years, producing a joyous, finely-constructed work with occasional sobering overtones.

The collective tone was deeply sonorous, with particularly emotive oboe playing, while the tempo transitions were confidently handled, with O’Neill masterfully negotiating the lengthy work’s long-term structure. Melodic plateaus were tenderly reached for and sensitively attained, with climaxes of almost symphonic weight. This was playing in which Strauss’s grand, towering gestures were allowed the space to tower grandly, but where the multitude of finely crafted and magical details were intuitively treasured and permitted to contribute to a whole that, to the credit of the ensemble, was greater than the sum of its very substantial parts.

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