A particularly charming lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s

The Nikau Trio – Karen Batten (flute), Madeline Sakofsky (oboe), Jane Young (cello)

Serenade IV in B flat, K 439b (Mozart); Trio Sonata in C minor (Telemann); Chrzaszcz (‘Grasshopper’) (G Waterhouse); Trio in C, Op 87 (Beethoven)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 30 November, 12.15pm

Not a lot of composers have written music specifically for the combination of flute, oboe and cello; however, any composers present at this concert might have been prompted to do so both on account of the intrinsic attractiveness of the sound blend, and the charming case these three players made for the four pieces they played.

They began with a to-me-unknown serenade by Mozart: K 439b, listed as Serenade IV: that means No 4 in the group of five serenades or divertimenti (25 ‘divertimenti’ in all) that carry the catalogue number K 439b (K.Anh.229 in the fairly definitive 6th edition of the Köchel Catalogue). It gets more complicated…

Naturally, you will find a great deal of interesting, if not altogether straight-forward scholarly information on the famous  catalogue through Google and Wikipedia.

The five serenades are scored for various instruments; this one appears to be scored for three basset-horns or two clarinets and basset-horn.  So what we heard evaded the sounds that Mozart had very emphatically in his mind – that of the clarinet and its bass cousin the basset horn. The introductory rising, unison triad would have sounded more convincing played by three identical instruments; the effect from instruments of very different timbres was, to say the least, strange, something that I doubt Mozart would have written.

However, sources reveal arrangements for a wide variety of instruments – almost all winds – including clarinet, oboe, cor anglais, French horn, bassoon, and including a piano.

In general, however, the five brief movements, most based on one theme, were charming though slight. In this scoring, it seemed easier to hear them as mere background music for a vivacious social event. The players established straight away their facility and their comfort in the salon style of music Mozart wrote here.

However, I felt that this piece proved the most problematic in terms of persuasive, idiomatic sound. In contrast, the Telemann trio launched itself with an air of some consequence, written of course when the baroque style was still dominant; it bore the marks of contrapuntal mastery and steady attention to the role of each instrument, bearing mind players and perhaps audience of some musical sophistication as compared with the perhaps less attentive and well-schooled listeners to Mozart’s piece.

It really is a revelation to encounter from Telemann music that shows both such compositional skill and inventiveness, as well a such charm. Each instrument seemed to have music that revealed its best characteristics, the cello in the first movement, the oboes at the opening of the third, a thoughtful Andante, and a lively flute opening of the final Allegro, which employed an adroit though unostentatious fugue.

The third piece was by a Munich-based English composer, Graham Waterhouse (born 1962). His piece had a fine Polish name of nine letters with only one vowel: Chrzaszcz. (Isn’t it interesting to contemplate how much more economically this word would appear in Russian – Хжaщ.  Cyrillic script provides single letters for most sounds that demand two or more letters in Polish and in English and other languages that used the Roman alphabet).

Written in 1984, it was quite short, pithy and its motifs and rhythms offered sufficient justification of its title that means ‘grasshopper’; but its main stylistic origin sounded neither English, nor German, nor Polish – but French, of the Poulenc or Françaix flavour. The players were clearly entertained by it and gave a lively, colourful performance.

Though it carries a fairly late opus number which would suggest around 1810, the Trio, Op 87 was probably written in 1794, shortly after Beethoven’s arrival in Vienna. Hardly a profound work of course, but among its strengths was the fact that, though originally for two oboes and cor anglais, its arrangements seem not to detract from its musical value; rather, as in this case, it seems always appropriate, as the music’s quality is proof against any maltreatment; an arrangement can even enhance its attractiveness and character.  That seemed particularly the case with the cello, whose voice was hardly represented in the original score.  These players seemed to relish the opportunities offered by their individual parts, as well as responding collegially to blending of their parts.

Though the first movement was quite long, its material supported it without a hint of empty note-spinning. Unlike much music of the classical or galant era, no movement seemed without substance: an Adagio that may not have been profound but reflected the thoughts of a serious-minded composer; a minuet that didn’t avoid the routine form, but already revealed an originality and intelligence. In the Finale the cello’s role provided colour and a lyrical quality that might not have been common in such pieces at that time (apart from Haydn and Mozart). It is a highly diverting piece whose individuality the players relished and which brought a delightful recital to a lively end.

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