Proms Chamber Music No.1 (21 July)

Six Bagatelles
Ten Pieces
Six Metamorphoses after Ovid
Old Hungarian Dances of the 17th Century

Galliard Ensemble
[Kathryn Thomas (flute), Owen Dennis (oboe), Katherine Spencer (clarinet), Richard Bayliss (horn), Helen Simons (bassoon)]

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 21 July, 2003
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The wind quintet – indeed all wind ensemble music – seems (pardon the inapposite pun) always to play second string to string quartets; so this opening concert of the Proms Chamber Music series at the V & A (every Monday lunchtime during the season) was especially welcome. On stage was the Galliard Ensemble, this year (incredibly) celebrating its tenth anniversary, in a delicious programme of 20th-century wind music.

Framed by 80-years-old-this-year György Ligeti’s two main works for wind quintet, the Proms season’s Greek mythology theme was represented by two solo wind works by Debussy and Britten, while Ligeti’s teacher, Ferenc Farkas (1905–2000) got a look in with his Old Hungarian Dances.Sandwiched between the Britten and Ligeti’s Ten Pieces, the Dances sounded very old indeed, but the writing itself is delightful. There is no better combination for such ’harmoniemusik’ or ’tafelmusik’, which is essentially what it is.

The other pieces do not really follow that tradition.Syrinx – Debussy’s languorous meditation on Pan’s pipes – wove its magical spell in Kathryn Thomas’s tender performance, although the immediacy of the V & A Lecture Theatre’s acoustic was less than ideal.Given the ethereal nature of the monologue, I have always imagined the sound coming from afar, the player unseen, with the music gently attracting the senses, but in the V & A it felt too immediate.

The stasis purveyed by the Debussy was broken by Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, played with precision, poise and purposefulness by Owen Dennis. These individual character-studies of various Ovid characters, who are in some way transformed, were winningly played, a display of technical virtuosity which did not attempt to hide how hard the pieces must be to play. I particularly liked Bacchus who gets ever more tipsy (like the bassoon, the double reed of the oboe is especially suited to slurping noises) and, to end, Arethusa, who is transformed into a gurgling stream, imitated by rippling passagework.

But it was Ligeti’s two great works for wind quintet that displayed the real quality of the Galliards. By comparison to the genial Bagatelles – written in 1953 – the Ten Pieces (1968) are much harder nuts to crack and are much more typically Ligeti. Christopher Cook’s intro informed us that Ligeti had been recommended to drop the final, fast and rhythmic Bagatelle from the first performance because of its revolutionary nature, but in fact it is the fifth, with its strange harmonies produced by slow overlapping chords, that seems most forward-looking.

From the period after he had left Hungary and had been welcomed by the (West) European avant-garde, Ligeti’s Ten Pieces are fiendishly difficult and still suggest as if they are breaking ground in finding new soundworlds.Five of the movements highlight an individual instrument (flute doubling piccolo and alto flute, oboe with oboe d’amore and cor anglais, and clarinet with companions in B flat and A). The final piece focuses on the bassoon, but again it was the penultimate piece that burnt itself on the memory. Just for the three higher instruments, bassoon and horn silent, Ligeti literally ups the ante by having ever-higher notes shrieked out.In his orchestral works such a build-up would suddenly switch to the deepest (and quietest) of growls, but here the sound dissipated into the half-dome of the Lecture Theatre, leaving more than just the players breathless.

An engrossing start to the Proms Chamber Music season then and one certainly worth catching on the broadcast repeat, although (because the main programme overran), the encore – Percy Grainger’s Lisbon – will presumably again be omitted.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Sunday 27 July at 1 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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