French horn blasts and a distinct piccolo – Review of January concert

French horn blasts and a distinct piccolo
It’s a fair way from a chilly, damp winter evening on Oxford’s High Street to perhaps a spring morning at St Mark’s Basilica, Venice. But in both churches, music was and is fundamental, even paramount in 1500s St Mark’s, since the spoken parts of the Mass would be conducted quietly at the high altar. Such a set-up allowed the music of Giovanni Gabrieli and his predecessors and successors as Principal Organist/Composer to flow on, uninterrupted. For these Canzoni, Gabrieli had at his disposal sackbuts and at least one cornetto, both soft-toned versions of trombone and trumpet respectively. Here, the Oxford Sinfonia put up five trumpets and five trombones, and despite the welcome presence, in the middle of three pieces, of a single viola, I fear the composer’s delicate polyphonic interplay was altogether crushed by the inexorable wall of brass sound thus created.

Conductor Peter Bassano, introducing the Beethoven Trauergesang, suggested, no doubt correctly, that no one present would have heard the piece played before tonight. It featured at the composer’s funeral in 1827, a momentous event that in scale resembled obsequies for a monarch. The combination of brass and Wendover Choral Society’s voices was unusual and effective, though possibly the choice of funeral music was just a touch out of place amid the rest of the programme which was of a predominantly optimistic nature.

W. A. Mozart’s ‘Linz’ Symphony was written over four days of November 1783 (one source claims in a 24 hour period, which seems well-nigh impossible, even for this composer). I’m fond of the brightness of its keys and the gallantry of its melodies. It seems to confirm the notion that Mozart thought the symphony a cheerful genre, a mite less serious than the keyboard concerto. That said, the chromatic inflections of the introductory Adagio here and in other symphonies add a hint of mystery to what becomes airy later. Mr Bassano set a pleasingly stately rhythm in the Andante, the lower strings combining smartly with the upper section, the latter guided by the pair of throbbing double basses and the former producing elegant triplet decorations. The strings were again very good at the end of the Presto, where they dive to the bottom of their register.

The opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth have symbolic value as emblematic of the rugged, uncompromising Beethoven of popular imagining, but the ensuing music in the movement always seems to me more notable for its pathos than its drama. Soon the twin horns in unison introduced the second subject with a resonant fanfare, then another and then a third. The conductor did a grand job here and throughout, by driving the sound forward relentlessly while reining in any question of this or that section dominating.

The set of variations forming the second movement released the tension somewhat, before yet another horn blast at the start of the Scherzo heralded the essential battle between hesitation and determination, Mr Bassano judging the choppy tempos perfectly. In the Finale, a blaze of sound, I admired how Chris Britton’s piccolo made itself heard above the rest of the winds and even above the flute, and we ran on headlong to the conclusion that’s replete with Beethoven’s perhaps over-emphatic repetitions. A thoroughly satisfying finish to a novel programme.

Andrew Bell
Daily Info