Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Music for Winds
Sextet in E flat, Op. 71 [17:05]
Due for clarinet and bassoon, WoO 27 No. 1 [10:43]
Octet in E flat, Op. 103 [19:44]
Rondino in E flat, WoO 25 [5:41]
March in B flat, WoO 29 [1:21]
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists
rec. 2016, North Leith Parish Church, Edinburgh
LINN CKD572 [55:13]
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra wind soloists are effectively the musicians that make up the orchestra’s regular wind sections, and I regularly praise their contributions to concerts in the pages of Seen and Heard. Their previous disc of Mozart’s wind divertimenti was a real delight (review), and this disc will inevitably be seen as a follow-up to that one.
That’s both a blessing and a curse, though, the curse being that this one suffers a little by the comparison. Not because of the playing, which is wonderful throughout, nor because of the disc’s presentation, which is lavish even by Linn’s very high standards; but because of the repertoire. It all dates from early in Beethoven’s career (don’t let the late opus numbers fool you) before his move to Vienna, and he was writing it for the Bonn court of Archduke Maximilian Franz, brother to Emperor Josef II. It was customary for the European nobility to maintain wind bands to play so-called Harmoniemusik as background entertainment for their official and private functions, and Mozart probably wrote most of his for such a setting. Where Mozart was capable of conjuring up jewels of rare beauty, however, I repeatedly got the impression that Beethoven’s mind was only half on the job.
In the Sextet of 1796, for example, the outer movements are dainty but not all that convincing, though I enjoyed the singing bassoon of the slow movement. You get a hint of what’s to come in the raucous Minuet, but it’s only a hint and it sounds a bit half-hearted to me. The little March in B flat is diverting, particularly in the way the recording picks up the spatial effect of the band moving closer, and the E flat Rondino is charming, particularly as it points up at close quarters the sound of the natural horn, a high-risk instrument which is played brilliantly on this disc by both Alec Frank-Gemmill and Harry Johnstone, repeatedly making sounds that are not only beautiful but also extremely athletic. Similarly, while Maximiliano Martín and Peter Whelan play the duo for clarinet and bassoon with great character and warmth (perhaps more than it deserves), the outer movements are a bit of a plod, while the melancholic central Larghetto doesn’t quite live up to what its opening sequence promises.
No: Mozart seems to have been much more willing to turn his gifts to the purpose of such functional entertainment. The one exception is the Octet of 1793, a really lovely piece where the Beethoven’s nascent genius clearly shines through, and where the addition of the oboes gives the whole thing a much more satisfying texture than the later Sextet. Their swirling main melody sings over the first movement, and they lead the beautiful cantabile that characterises the slow movement. The third movement is particularly interesting: it’s officially a Menuetto, but in reality it’s a Scherzo in all but name, the instruments calling to one another in rapid succession and dancing up and down the scale. There is also a lovely sense of the chase to the finale, with the clarinets leading off with their tongues firmly in cheek, and some virtuosic natural horn playing that will make you sit up and take notice.
It’s a shame the other works didn’t call forth similar brilliance from the composer, but don’t let my grumpiness put you off. If you want to explore some of these lesser known corners of Beethoven’s output then you couldn’t hope for more masterful, affable guides.