To Compose Without the Least Knowledge of Music

Figures in the Garden
Colin Matthews
To Compose Without the Least Knowledge of Music
Serenade in B flat, K361 (Gran Partita)

London Winds
Michael Collins (clarinet)

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 17 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Royal Albert Hall is an odd venue for small-group music, not so much ‘chamber’ as ‘echo chamber’, and with the sun setting on a balmy Hyde Park, it seemed a shame that this concert of serenades could not go al fresco on the other side of Kensington Gore. It said much for this well-chosen programme, and for the superb musicianship of London Winds, that the concert was entirely delightful.

Mozart’s ‘Gran Partita’ is arguably the greatest music ever written for wind ensemble, taking a format designed for society background music and elevating it to the level of genius. It is mammoth in every sense; its 45-minute span dwarfs symphonies of the time, and Mozart swelled the conventional wind octet to thirteen players, adding extra horns and a pair of basset-horns, and beefing up the bottom end with a contrabassoon, here supported by double bass. The unmistakable, copper-bottomed sound of Mozart’s well-spaced chords is thrilling; few composers have combined the strange bedfellows of the woodwind section to such effect.

Despite some loss of detail to the cavernous hall, London Winds played every nuance of the score for all it was worth in a formally sure reading that supported stylish solo playing. The two minuet movements were nicely contrasted, the first stately and the second sparky, and there was a lovely downhill accelerando from the Ländler trio in the latter to the main theme. The famous Adagio was as sublime as one could wish, a perfect combination of tonal richness with harmonic and melodic simplicity, and the moments of hushed stillness in the Theme and Variations were magical. The finale was dispatched with gusto, and special mention must go to bassoonist Daniel Jemeson’s effortless navigation of some hair-raising passage-work.

The Mozart was preceded by Jonathan Dove’s winning Figures in the Garden, an expertly-crafted serenade for wind octet that takes fragments of “The Marriage of Figaro” and develops them into minimalistic miniatures. Particularly enjoyable were the Ligeti-esque textures of ‘Susanna in the Rain’, the slow melody surrounded by a steady shower of falling figuration, and the ‘Nocturne: Figaro and Susanna’ which divides the octet into two choirs for a touching exchange. Dove’s wind-writing is beautifully idiomatic, and the work has an unselfconscious charm.

There was also Colin Matthews’s witty update of Mozart’s musical dice-game, for wind sextet, in which chance operations produce a series of comical variations which halt abruptly, leaving the listener hanging, mid-cadence.

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