Boxwood & Brass: Divertimenti for Cognoscenti

Divertimenti for Cognoscenti
Boxwood & Brass
St Peter’s, Streatham. 15 September 2015

The imaginatively named group Boxwood & Brass specialise in Harmoniemusik (for wind instruments) from the two or three decades either side of 1800. This is a fascinating and, with the exception clarinetsof some Mozart examples, a relatively unknown repertoire. The Harmonie usually described an ensemble of up to fifteen players, generally with pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons, sometimes supplemented by a wide range of other instruments. With its roots in Viennese saloon and Imperial music, a parallel tradition was growing in France through military and revolutionary bands. Apparently there are some 12,000 works for the Harmonie band.

Boxwood & Brass’s concert at St Peter’s, Streatham (where they are Ensemble in Residence) compared music from Vienna and Paris, played on the smallest version of the Harmonie, with four of their more usual six players – two clarinets, horn and bassoon. Franz Tausch (1762-1817) was one of the first virtuosi clarinettists. He started in the famed Mannheim orchestra, moving with it to Munich and then on to the Berlin Court chamber orchestra. The Boxwood & Brass quartet played three of his XIII Pièces (Op.22), making a well balanced three-movement work. He was one of the first composers to indicate accelerandos and rallentandos, both very apparent in the jovial opening Allegro. The Adagio and Allegro molto both featured sections built up from repeated-note patterns (the latter with an insistent little clarinet motif), something that also appeared in some of the later pieces in the programme. It was also noticeable, in these as in other pieces, that the bassoon frequently took the lead in introducing melodic ideas.
The only composer likely to be known to anybody in the audience (or, indeed, known to anybody at all) was Beethoven. The Adagio from his Trio in C (Op.87) was originally written for two oboes and cor anglais, but was also published for several different combinations of instruments. Here it was played by the two clarinets and bassoon. One feature was a sinuously winding melody, generally given to the bassoon. After a reflective and thoughtful spoken introduction to the genre and the difference between the Germanic and French traditions by clarinettist Emily Worthington, we then heard two pieces from Paris, starting with Françoise Devienne’s two movement Trio in Eb (Op.27/2), described by Emily as a ‘bonkers’ piece. Its structure was rather fragmentary, the skittish opening Allegro built on a repeated note bass. The final piece was the substantial three-movement Quartet in Bb (Op.10/1) by André-Frédéric Eler. It featured an increasingly lugubrious melody in the Adagio, and a rather quixotic finale with lots of little duo moments and, again, repeated notes and a bassoon-led melodic sequence. All the instruments were given their chance to shine, which they all duly did.

This was a delightful concert of a fascinating and little-known repertoire, given by four talented young musicians whose sense of period style was evident, not least in their phrasing.

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