Beethoven: Octet in E-flat, Op. 103; Hosokawa: Variations pour vent; Mozart: Gran Partita in B-flat, KV 361

Bläserensemble Sabine Meyer

Royal Brussels Conservatory, 4 February 2009 4.5 stars

Sabine MeyerBläserensemble Sabine Meyer have developed (in line with their leader) a strong reputation over their twenty year existence for imaginative programming, a reputation which extends backwards in time to neglected works of the past, just as it does outwards to new works of the present.

This evening's concert in the elegant surroundings of the Royal Brussels Conservatory endorsed such a reputation, with youthful Beethoven, brooding Hosokawa, and familiar and charming Mozart combining in an intriguing sequence of wind music. The standard of the playing, after something of a hesitant beginning, was exemplary: expressive, focused, and joyful by turns. The group boasts an impressive line-up of wind players in their own right — their English oboist Jonathan Kelly, for instance, is principal oboe of the Berlin Philharmonic — and the skilled players have developed an affinity for each other's company which means that they can bend and flex together, nimble alone, consummate as one.

The concert opened with Beethoven's Octet in E-flat, Op. 103. Despite appearances (the high opus number, which resulted from its late publication in the 1720s), the work actually belongs to the composer's relative youth; it was written in 1792 whilst he was still in Bonn, later revised under Haydn's supervision, and later still reworked as the String Quintet, Op. 4. It is a fairly straightforward essay in sonata form, with however many moments that lift it from routine. The slow movement is a piece of light-galant whimsy that succeeds through its simple enchantment with a plain descending harmonic figure, and through its skilled employment of the varying tone colours of the ensemble. Meyer and the aforementioned Kelly were gorgeous here, creamy in their solos, graceful in their exchanges. The Trio of the Menuetto was even better: the amount of space in the texture and phrasing would punish greener players, but the Bläserensemble were utterly poised as they caressed melodic figures on to their neighbour, or joined for limpid duets and trios.

Following the Beethoven, the group gave a tenacious performance of Toshio Hosokawa's 1994 Variations pour vents (written originally for the ensemble). Like much of the composer's other work, the piece concentrates on a Japanese-influenced conception of time and timbre; Nö deliberation in the spacing of notes and phrases was matched with an opaqueness in the timbral surface of the work which echoes the alienated curves of haiku. As with Takemitsu, these aspects are filtered through a distinctly Western set of concerns, such that motivic concentration and tensile extensions of tonal palette come to define the work. The variation procedures are resourceful: out of a short exaggerated appoggiatura and a portentous sustained chord, a throbbing, speckled form is built. Chords elongate, tones revolve from person to person, beat tones flutter from close, but never fused, clarinets. Drawing ever outward to the false promise of a refinement of the thick harmonies to their fundamental tones, the piece closes in dark evanescence, beautifully evaporating with a held harmonic from Meyer.

The skilful classicism of the earlier Beethoven was maintained for the concluding Mozart Gran Partita in B-flat, KV 361. The rich tone of the now expanded low winds (contrabassoon and two basset horns joined for the Mozart) came to the fore in the famous Adagio, where the syncopated, quasi-walking bass accompaniment figure set the refined soloing of Meyer and Kelly in sumptuous relief. The group's skill with colour and expression, which, incidentally, was never more obvious than in the aquatic moments of pedal point horns against gossamer arpeggios in basset horns in the Finale, was matched with intelligence in the pacing and emphases of their performance. Their vigorous progression through thematic variation in the penultimate movement found little obstacle in the ever more bold variation techniques invented by Mozart; the players soared as the long opening note of the theme become drawn into a shorter upbeat, and then finally transmogrified into triple time. The tempi were a little brisk all evening — the Allegretto in the Romanze, for instance, absolutely whipped along — but overall the performers' judgement was impeccable. The vividness of their interactions, as if they were a group of happy friends arguing and assenting, was especially impressive. After an enthusiastic reception, the group came back on for a dashing whip-through of an arrangement of the Overture to Le nozzi de Figaro. An impressive evening of music.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Sabine Meyer


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