Monday 4 August 2014

Proms Chamber Music 3 - London Winds/Collins: Mozart and Strauss, 4 August 2014

Cadogan Hall

Mozart – Serenade no.12 in C minor, KV 388/384a
Strauss – Suite in B-flat major for thirteen wind instruments, op.4

Philippa Davies, Sarah Newbold (flutes)
Gareth Hulse, Katie Clemmow (oboes)
Michael Collins, Peter Sparks (clarinets)
Dan Jemison, Helen Simons (bassoons)
Fraser Gordon (contra-bassoon)
Richard Watkins, Michael Thompson, Elise Campbell, Carys Evans (horns)
Michael Collins (director)

This lovely lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall presented Mozart’s great C minor Serenade for woodwind followed by Strauss’s B-flat major Suite for thirteen wind instruments. The former is a masterpiece, the latter an apprentice work, but it was something of a tribute to the performance from London Winds that one could still respond more or less equally warmly to both halves of the recital.

The Mozart Serenade opened in grave fashion, opening up just as it should. In this of all Mozart’s ‘serenades’, the popular understanding of the genre surely stands most distant. There is typical chiaroscuro, of course, and there are plenty of well opportunities, here taken, for Elysian delight, but this is a work of a seriousness we are more likely to consider ‘symphonic’. Harmonic rhythm was beautifully, meaningfully judged, often built here in the first movement upon a wonderfully grainy bassoon line. The close was tragic in a properly Mozartian sense. Tender dignity characterised the slow movement, played simply, seemingly ‘as written’, though such simplicity conceals a great deal of artifice. As in its predecessor, the tempo seemed just ‘right’, so much so that one did not notice it. The minuet brought Mozart poised, quite rightly, between Bach and Beethoven, ‘learned’ counterpoint and its harmonic implications the key to tragedy. Its trio imparted welcome sunlight – or should that be moonlight? Mood, voice, strength of purpose, and indeed form all served to have the finale point to that of the C minor Piano Concerto, KV 491. Musical inventiveness gave the lie to silly claims one sometimes hears concerning the relative impoverishment of Classical variation form, the conviction of the performance leaving one in no doubt as to this movement’s stature, or indeed as to that of the work as a whole. As so often, Mozart’s chromaticism and construction had us know that we were but a stone’s throw away from the Second Viennese School. The first banishment of clouds, heralded by tender horns, had me think of Figaro; the second led to a suitably good-natured conclusion which yet could not efface memories of what had gone before.

The larger ensemble (thirteen as opposed to eight instruments) required by Strauss necessarily resulted in fuller tone, but there was also of course plenty of scope for subdivision. Already in the first movement one heard a highly dramatic, even at times operatic voice, if without quite the individuality or indeed the clarity of purpose that would soon develop. The second movement came closer, not least at its opening. Its dignity as a ‘Romanze’ seemed both to hark back to Mozart’s Andante and to pay its debt to nineteenth-century masters. Mock-seriousness in the Gavotte was soon, almost instantly, transmuted into clearer thumbing of the nose, Till Eulenspiegel-style, even though Strauss’s handling of form here remains relatively stiff. Solos seemed also to herald the world of the tone poems. Again, there was splendid contrast between them and a grainy bassoon bass line, all the more delightful when one of the bassoons itself turned soloist. ‘Learned’ counterpoint might not suit Strauss so well as Mozart, but that in the final fugue was despatched – both in work and performance – with good humour, even delight. This might not be a masterpiece, but its performance confirmed my general belief that the lesser works of great composers are of more interest than the principal works of lesser composers. Who would not rather hear Apollo et Hyacinthus or Guntram than … (fill in the gap)?