Sinfonia Concertante for wind quartet – oboe, clarinet, bassoon
and horn – and orchestra is often seen as a lesser relative
of the great work for violin and viola with the same title.
That may be so, but it is nonetheless an utterly beguiling
and characteristic work, one which can make good wind players
salivate at the mere prospect of performing it, so perfect
is the writing for each of the soloists. It has a vigorous,
rather grand opening movement, culminating in an ensemble
cadenza for the solo group, a magical central Adagio,
and a witty and inventive set of variations on a folksy theme
for its finale. The only possible reservation about the work’s
musical qualities might be that all three movements are in
the same key, E flat major, which takes away some of the sense
of contrast - hardly a major drawback.
Bach Concerto for violin and oboe is, as the booklet notes
explain, a transcription by the composer of an earlier harpsichord
concerto. Nowadays, however, the music is much better known
in this duet form, and the central slow movement, with its
graceful solo lines over soft plucked strings, is a particular
little ‘San Lorenzo’ concerto grosso – so named because it
is believed to have been written for the convent church of
San Lorenzo in Venice - is a typically quirky piece, unusual
too in its apparent requirement for a pair of clarinets among
the solo group. There is some dispute about this; the clarinet
was in its infancy in Vivaldi’s day, and he actually specifies
an instrument described as ‘claren’, which could conceivably
indicate trumpets. However, the fairly athletic nature of
the parts makes that less likely, and despite occasionally
making the music sound more like Stravinsky in his ‘Pulcinella’
vein, the clarinets sound splendid.
is a typically entertaining and unpredictable piece of Vivaldi;
one little mystery though – why are there said to be just
two movements in the concerto when there are quite
plainly three? Hence track 8 begins with a clearly
defined and rather lovely slow movement in G minor, in the
composer’s favourite free ground bass form, marked Largo
e cantabile – ‘broad and songful’. There then follows
a joyful and brilliant concluding Allegro in the home
key of C major. It’s probably an editor’s problem,
in which case no blame attaches to the performers or producer.
But it still makes no sense!
is a recording of a live concert, a fact which accounts for
both its strengths and weaknesses. The latter first; there
is a surprising number of incidental errors, of the sort that
are no big deal in a concert, but could be irritating or disappointing
in a recording. Some wrong notes in the oboe in the slow
movement of the Mozart (according to my score anyway), various
minor fluffs from soloists in the variations, brought about
largely by the slightly rushed tempo, and what sounds like
a massive boob by a clarinettist a few bars into the Vivaldi.
In other words, just a little on the accident-prone
side given the players concerned.
they are fine players, and what the performance loses in studio-based
perfection it gains through the palpable ‘buzz’ of a live
event. Schneider sets a cracking tempo for the opening ritornello
– just a little too cracking, for the orchestral musicians
sound hurried and uncomfortable. Fortunately, when the soloists
enter, the tempo relaxes ever so slightly, and the music gains
immeasurably. Schneider, however, has other ideas, and he
tends to push forward each time there is a tutti.
slow movement, however is glorious, the beautifully balanced
interplay of the solo group reminding me of some of the great
ensembles in Mozart operas – sublime music-making, and, even
in this distinguished company, the horn playing of Jonathan
Williams stands out. He has that rare capacity amongst horn
players to fine his tone down so that it matches his woodwind
colleagues, and he turns his phrases with breathtaking elegance.
That’s true in the finale, too, though once again the tempo
is just on the uncomfortable side of lively, and this time
even the soloists are affected, with small errors creeping
into the woodwind parts.
Bach is more polished, with Boyd and Blankestijn perfectly
matched in their approach and their musicality, the slow movement
being particularly lovely in this respect. And the Vivaldi
rattles along in the most infectious way (once that howler
in the first few bars is behind us).
balance, the many virtues of this CD overwhelm its niggling
imperfections. Some would say the disc was worth having for
the Adagio of the Sinfonia Concertante alone – and
I’m inclined to concur.