fri 31/10/2014

Nicholas Daniel, Britten Sinfonia, MacMillan, Queen Elizabeth Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Nicholas Daniel, Britten Sinfonia, MacMillan, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Britain's top oboist dazzles in a new oboe concerto before rejoining the ranks

Nicholas Daniel: Tackling MacMillan's tough and brilliant new Oboe Concerto before slipping back into the ranks of the Britten Sinfonia
Nicholas Daniel: Tackling MacMillan's tough and brilliant new Oboe Concerto before slipping back into the ranks of the Britten Sinfonia

If you were one of the world's top soloists but with a limited concerto stock - as woodwind players' tend to be - wouldn't you find it more rewarding to work as a principal in the orchestral ranks? That's the ideal, surely, but few carry it out in practice. Nicholas Daniel, the beefiest-sounding oboist to appear on the scene since the great Maurice Bourgue, is one who does. Last night he not only shone in the bright ensemble of Beethoven's Second Symphony; he also scored a triumph with a tough new gift to him and the Britten Sinfonia, James MacMillan's latest teeming-with-life concerto.

I'm guessing that the Scots composer's head must be buzzing at the moment. Only months after the premiere of his racy Violin Concerto, he's produced another work which doesn't let the aural imagination rest for a moment. Written for old friend Daniel and his bright group, co-commissioners along with Birmingham Town Hall where the premiere took place last Friday conducted by the composer, MacMillan's Oboe Concerto, like its violin counterpart, is a lesson to other contemporary figures who kick off indifferently, usually with an indifferent wash of percussion (he makes only striking use of timpani), and fail to come up with a single striking idea, however competent their writing. It starts with a catchy ostinato in the violas, but textures, rhythms and colours change so kaleidoscopically that you soon don't know where you are.

Which is surely part of the point in MacMillan's giddying outer movements. The oboe writing is tumultuous, like Britten's classic Six Metamorphoses after Ovid on acid. When Daniel wasn't cascading and ricocheting chromatic runs and hyperactive arpeggios, he was indeed allowed to sing - but usually with sharp orchestral buffets behind him (there's a marvellous passage in the opening Marcato e ritmico where the soloist forces a chorale-like line against trumpet tuckets). We lesser oboists are bound to wonder how he didn't get water in his second octave, or faint from all those endless phrases, while producing such a tirelessly full and brilliant tone.

The central Largo is more about textures than striking ideas, perhaps, complete with now-familiar Gaelic ornamentation and a haunting, echoing mesh between the oboist and his woodwind colleagues, but there's enough here to hold the interest in the shifting skyscapes before the crazy finale bursts upon us. The orchestral dance-ensembles are marked "ecstatic" and "joyfully", but they sounded garish and scary to me, brilliantly focused by a composer-conductor who knows what he's doing.

If there was any connection with one of MacMillan's two chosen companions in the concert, Shostakovich, it was here in some of the off-kilter circus clown antics. But those were a reminder of the early, anarchic Shostakovich and not the mostly sober elegist of the Eighth Quartet, that requiem for himself which Rudolf Barshai adapted for full strings as the Chamber Symphony. The Britten Sinfonia's sophisticated players made the most of contrasts between deadpan ensemble and warming solo lines, especially poignantly taken by a hushed leader, Thomas Gould, and cellist Caroline Dearnley. And they tore into those frightening climaxes justifying the transcription, as in the second-movement quotation of the Second Piano Trio, where pizzicati fiercely reinforce bowing. MacMillan's conducting kept the pathos at arm's length, which was probably just as well given this version's potential for overspill.

His Beethoven Second was clean and clear, too, if a little too stocky in the first two movements. Daniel was back in the rank and file, crowning the introduction and its more playful consequences like a bright child in a nursery, and making especially delightful work of the scherzo's trio. It was here, after a slightly poker-faced Larghetto, that MacMillan hit the stride of an ideal, fluent tempo, and he kept up the good humour as well as a sudden excursion into Eroica territory in Beethoven's most irresistible finale. After the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's well-sprung performance of the symphony in the same hall, this felt like a rather stout and steaky symphony orchestra, but Beethoven can take both approaches.

Watch Nicholas Daniel play "Arethusa" from Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid:

Daniel was back in the rank and file for Beethoven's Second Symphony, crowning the introduction and its more playful consequences like a bright child in a nursery

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I really enjoyed the MacMillan too. Second movement particularly. Nicholas Daniel went some fine shades of red running around that solo part!

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