Immediately after performing Siegfried at the Albert Hall the night before, conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach, along with four members of L’Orchestre de Paris, launched this year’s series of Chamber Prom concerts in the Art Deco filtered light of Cadogan Hall.
If they were tired after their previous night’s endeavours, it did not show. The group of musicians played with professionalism and a genuine love for the music.
The concert celebrated wind instruments in chamber music and the first offering featured Eschenbach and Alexandre Gattet on oboe playing Robert Schumann’s Three Romances for oboe and piano, Op. 94.
The three-movement work was given no title apart from the performance directions for each of its movements. It is also unclear as to what inspired its composition other than the composer’s famous love of the culture and art which was at the core of Romanticism in the nineteenth century. This is expressed through winding melodies binding together the two instruments’ rich harmonic invention.
The pair played with the good communication expected from an ensemble featuring such a renowned conductor. However, as the roles were reversed in the sense that the conductor’ was being directed by the soloist, one couldn’t help but feel that Gattet was in a position where he could have been intimidated. The young oboist handled the situation well and although he was perhaps not as dominant as he could have been, he directed Eschenbach clearly and thoughtfully.
Gattet’s smooth but passionate playing had a consistent tone with good breath control. He had good dynamic expression and was sensitive to the piano part which was played with a gentle touch and a fluid style.
The next performer commandeered the platform through his performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Three pieces for solo clarinet. The man in question was Philippe Berrod. He executed a technically difficult display of wit, humour and thoughtful playing.
The pieces were all short and left you wanting more, thanks to their skilful presentation. The first was a resonant tableau of syrupy conversations performed whilst seated, before Berrod jumped up to excite all with his dexterity and nimble touch in the fast and cheeky pucklike middle piece. He then danced his way through the rhythmically virtuosic third piece, drawing out both its jazzy and eastern influences simultaneously until his last throwaway note.
The penultimate piece was Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and bassoon. This featured Berrod joined by Giorgio Mandolesi on the bassoon. The two delightfully navigated the sonata’s entwining melodies and shimmering harmonies showing very clearly its inspiration, a French reaction to the exciting modern sound of the Stravinsky piece.
It was obvious that the musicians had a lot of fun with the virtuosic style which was admirably tackled even though there were a couple of missed notes from the bassoon’s plodding accompaniment in the middle movement. However, the final movement’s interrupted ascending scales resulted in an uplifting finish.
After the two twentieth century pieces which had been presented, it seemed awkward to welcome the eighteenth-century Mozart to the platform. However, in the event none of the maestro’s pieces could have been more suitable than his Quintet in E flat major for piano and wind, K452.
This piece shows the more daring side of Mozart’s personality. For a start, apart from the flute, it was rare to allow the more robust wind instruments into the gentile world of chamber music. Secondly, the piano part was incredibly difficult – almost a mini concerto – and thirdly, the free nature of the progressive-sounding music added an extra depth and interest. The wealth of compositional elements could only be as effectively combined by the hand of a genius.
Eschenbach resumed his post at the piano, Berrod the clarinet, Gattet the oboe and Mandolesi the bassoon, and there was an addition of a horn into the ensemble played by Michel Garcin-Marrou. All played with finesse. However, Garcin-Marrou’s entries were not always precise and he seemed to struggle maintaining a clear tone at the piano dynamic.
In all, this concert provided an eclectic and exciting beginning to the Chamber Prom series. It included accomplished musicians and an interesting and unusual programme of material. If the season continues in this vein, it will be an entertaining one.