Harmoniemusik, founders of the St Columb Festival, are a busy ensemble, and it is always a pleasure to catch them at one of their London performances. Essentially a wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon) with piano, they occasionally bring in string players, but not for Friday night’s concert, which was performed with their usual perfectly-judged, elegantly blended approach, allowing different combinations of the core six instruments to shine. Pleasure is not only to be gained from Harmoniemusik’s high standard of chamber musicianship, but also from the rare and interesting selection of pieces they present – each concert always providing the listener with a new experience.
Ancient Hungarian Dances by the much-neglected Hungarian composer Ferenc Farkas supplied a splendid opener. Like his countrymen Bartók and Kodály, Farkas occasionally arranged folk music for more modern ensembles, and this collection of five Renaissance dances for wind quintet alternates stately galliards with more robust movements such as the final Allegro in which the whoops and burps from the clarinet and bassoon provided a modern take on the early-instrument sound.
Max Bruch’s eight Opus 83 trios were originally scored for viola, clarinet and piano, but a selection of them have been adapted by Harmoniemusik with a bassoon replacing the viola, and they performed four contrasting movements – two delicious Andante movements that exploited flowing elegiac lines from each of the solo instruments echoed above a piano accompaniment, which then coalesced into full trio; these were alternated with two Allegro movements, one a jolly romp and the other a ferocious Chopin-étude-like finale. As always, the playing was extremely accomplished, but the pieces, perhaps, suffered from the lack of the cutting tone of the original viola scoring, as the bassoon was sometimes difficult to hear in the texture.
Malcolm Arnold’s Suite Bourgeoise was arguably the star of the evening. Scored for flute, oboe and piano, it delivered everything promised from its title. Written in 1940 it seemed to explore the tropes of the pre-war Mayfair world: a constantly revisited F-sharp in Tango (portraying ‘Elaine’, a woman with a particularly annoying voice); hints of a riotous jazz-club evening in New York in Dance (Censored) – originally entitled ‘whorehouse’ – the tongue-in-cheek lushness of Ballad, as corny as the twinkle in a matinee-idol’s smile, and Valse (Ugo) a brittle jazz-waltz overlaid with conversational lines from a mellow oboe and a twittering flute.
Rossini’s Quartet for Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn was another adaptation from one of a set of quartets for violin, viola, cello and double bass written when the composer was in his early teens. It is a pretty enough piece, and the ensemble gave an excellent account of it, but as with much early Rossini, it failed to leave any lasting impression other than a generally sweet aftertaste.
The formal programme finished with all six players giving a bewitching performance of Albert Roussel’s impressionist Opus 6 Divertissement that conjured up, for winter Londoners, a French summer’s day. The audience was returned to Britain by an engaging lollipop encore piece: an arrangement by Paul Guinery the ensemble’s pianist, of a potpourri of tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas.