Flute and string quartet wide-ranging end to Wellington’s Sunday afternoon series

Boccherini: Quintet in C for flute and strings; Max Reger: Serenade for flute, violin and viola in G, Op.141a; Turina: The Bullfighter’s Prayer; Mozart: Quartet for flute and strings in D, K 285; Copland: Two Threnodies; Ginastera: Impressiones de la Puna for flute and string quartet


The Elios Ensemble: Martin Jaenecke and Konstanze Artmann (violins), Victoria Jaenecke (viola), Paul Mitchell (cello), Karen Batten (flute)


Ilott Theatre, Town Hall


Sunday 19 September, 3pm  


The last in the Sunday 3pm concert series from Wellington Chamber Music was a relatively new ensemble of musicians of varying backgrounds, who presumably do not play together as often as does a professional ensemble. Yet they sounded in command of the music, totally familiar with each other, and comfortable with the disparate programme they had so imaginatively put together.


The addition of Karen Batten’s flute both added to the variety of the concert, and brought about a certain lightening of the tone; even though fundamentally the ensemble is a string quartet, the inclusion of a flute limits the range of music available. On the other hand, the most striking thing about the programme was the seriousness of more than one of the pieces.


The first movement of Boccherini’s flute quintet in C (two in that key are listed in the Gérard catalogue, G 420 and 427) had an unusual robustness, heavily built that seemed out of character with the usual tone of the flute. Its first theme, pithy and abrupt, which was dominated by the flute, could hardly less have reflected the soubriquet ‘Haydn’s Wife’ that was attached to Boccherini in the 19th century on account of the perceived feminine character of his music. The second movement, Minuet, in a slow ländler-like rhythm, allowed first violin more attention, while the Finale offered the first hints of the Boccherini that is familiar through the recent exploration of his hundreds of string quartets and quintets.


One of the characteristics that marked the piece was the more interesting cello part played by Paul Mitchell – the composer was one of the most famous cellists of his day. But in spite of the ingratiating flute part, and the attractive writing for the ensemble, the quintet hardly recommended itself as a singular musical discovery.


Max Reger’s Serenade for flute, violin and viola had qualities that were diverting, but in spite of a liveliness and lightness of spirit in the outer movements and a certain pensiveness in the Larghetto, it failed to make a great impression. This, in spite of a performance that made the most of its colour and the sprightliness of the flute playing, and which proved sympathetic with the idiom that Reger had developed: something between Bach, Schumann, Brahms, and perhaps less kindly, composers like Max Bruch or Carl Reinecke. Sadly, its undistinguished melodic quality left it without much reason to look for another hearing.


Turina’s La oración del Torero, for string quartet, lifted the first half with its unpretentiousness, and its feeling of genuine musical impulse. It is a modest piece which paints a feeling, emotional picture, using melodies that may not be striking but have a certain distinction, and a quiet drama that hardly suggests the bravado of the bull-ring, but rather the quasi-religious emotion that devotees of the art of the torero lay claim to.


Undoubtedly the best and most attractive piece in the concert was Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D – one of the two he wrote. Nothing in it suggests Mozart’s alleged indifference to the flute, and the performance captured all the charm of its three lively, imaginative movements. The second, Adagio, is largely a solo for flute with pizzicato strings, and was a delightful vehicle for Karen Batten’s melifluous playing.


Copland’s two late Threnodies, the first, highly compressed, for the death of Stravinsky and the second, rather more discursive and expressive, for that of arts patroness Beatrice Cunningham, launched the second half in a somber vein, Though these pieces would hardly seem natural territory for the flute, Batten turned her talents persuasively towards their elegiac mood and their interpretation; if the Copland of Appalachian Spring and El Salón Mexico was remote, a serious spirit was not unwelcome here,.


The choice of music suited to unusual instrumental combinations has become much easier with the facilities of the Internet, and an interesting programme such as this is more easily achieved, given the taste and idiomatic sensibility that this ensemble exhibits.


The final piece marked a different direction again, and though superficially in a vein culturally related to the Turina, much had happened in the 35 years between the two composers. Impressions of the Andean Uplands, rather than being visually inspired, reflected the flutes, songs and dances of the peoples in its three parts, though it seemed to me that human beings were not Ginastera’s main concern. The first part, Quena (a type of Andean flute), suggested a somewhat bleak landscape, its flutes bereft of those who might be playing them. The second, in triple rhythm, and third parts, were more lively, with writing that taxed the players and entertained the audience.


Wellington is fortunate to have yet another quartet and a solo flutist of this quality, drawn mainly from professional orchestral players of individual talent who have been together long enough to develop an impressive ensemble feeling in a very wide variety of musical styles.