Brighton coffee concert review

Britten Oboe Quartet – Nicholas Daniel (oboe, cor anglais), Jacqueline Shave (violin), Clare Finnimore (viola), Caroline Dearnley (cello) – at Brighton Corn Exchange.

Elgar, Andante & Allegro; Knussen, Cantata for oboe & string trio; Mozart, Adagio for cor anglais & string trio K580a; Britten, Phantasy for oboe & string trio in F minor Op 2; interval; Lutyens, Oboe quartet, O Absalom; L.Berkeley, String Trio Op 19; Mozart, Oboe Quartet in K K370.

A Coffee Concert star born by lunchtime. Not over a few appearances, but in just a couple of hours. That was Britain’s favourite oboist Nicholas Daniel. His rapport with his audience as spokesman for his ensemble and its music and his instrument, was sheer joy. Lots of interesting information, advice, signposting, musical stories and jokes of human appeal, and a sense of humour, wit and willing self-deprecation.

Almost anti-star, with a sloppy, V-necked white T-shirt (‘Armani Exchange’) he might earlier have worn out of the shower to cook the breakfast in, now peering out from a sober dark suit. But a positive superstar with his wonderfully supple, flexible tone and the Daniel sound one longs to hear in praise of this instrument as an expressive match for its other apparently more versatile woodwind counterparts.

On behalf of certain 20th Century repertoire being played here, particularly Oliver Knussen and Elisabeth Lutyens pieces from 1977, Daniel was a spokesman needing to be an ambassador. But such is this Brighton Coffee Concert audience that almost anyone fearing they might have needed sugar with the medicine would have gladly submitted to the experience and challenges Daniel, Shave, Finnimore and Dearnley laid before them.

Once again, it’s that advantage which performance set ‘in the round’ gives performers and listeners alike. The skills, tests and stresses for the musicians in both these demanding composers’ works was palpable from all 360 degree viewing angles. And that close-up experience brought everything alive which on record or radio can so easily otherwise sound impersonal and imposing.

Speaking to me later, Daniel indicated how rewarded his ensemble had felt at the softness and fertility of the soil awaiting their seeds. And he told the audience in the round how nice he found it to see his friends, the other musicians, playing their instruments with people behind them.

This hugely receptive Brighton audience must make musicians at 11am wonder if they are still in bed, dreaming. It wants to learn, it wants to encounter new experiences. It has had its perception of chamber music widened by Chris Darwin’s ‘Origins of the Pieces’ programme notes , and its taste catholicised over the years by outstanding ensembles who now realise they are less box-office hidebound in what to play. The audience now sense when a risk is being taken and they will don the crash helmet and climb onto the pillion seat for the ride.

The Britten Oboe Quartet, an offshoot from the Britten Sinfonia. Britten is increasingly in this audience’s veins and his Phantasy hit the spot as it completed a first-half musical exploration that juxtaposed an early Elgar piece (of youthful intensity, then waltzing chattiness), and a Mozart rarity for cor anglais (ending in a gorgeous smile), with Knussen’s meticulously drawn Cantata of inventive, imagination-provoking textures and atmospheres.

Daniel warned that the Lutyens to begin the second half was best-placed there for an audience able to galvanise itself during the interval. Horror film score composition was Lutyens’ day job but here, from alcohol-fuelled evening composition, said Daniel, came O Absalom, another 12-tone insistence from 1977, this time dedicated to her mentally-stricken sister and written for Daniel’s teacher Janet Craxton. Cor anglais reappeared, and hardly an audience member moved during the piece’s entirety.

Daniel left the stage for the ladies to show their close-woven ensemble in the 1943 String Trio by the much more easily-assimilated Lennox Berkeley. This prepared everyone for the dessert, the piece most in the audience will have known, the one which ostensibly gave birth to the oboe quartet as a musical entity – the Quartet by Mozart. Taking us back two centuries, placed last on the programme, the performance came hewn from and invigorated by the rigours and angularity of what music the Britten Oboe Quartet had played already that morning.

More introductory words from Daniel, bringing chuckles about the bars in the finale designed to make the soloist sweat and go slightly nuts. And probably still the most perfect piece in the repertoire, given an extra fizz this day, brought our adventure in Daniel’s den of delights to a close ― and to cheers from the audience.

Yes, cheers. What had looked the least tempting programme of music in this season’s series had delivered something special. And the Coffee Concerts had seen its latest new star born.

Concluding this season is another rare chance to hear live in performance a big and great work for unusual forces, made programmable by enlisting senior musicians from a study situation. The Royal College of Music Wind Ensemble will play Mozart’s Gran Partita, alias his 10th Serenade, for 13 wind instruments in Bb K 361.

If you’ve forgotten the source of the Adagio that in ‘Amadeus’ stopped Salieri in his tracks, rendering him impotent as a composer, this is it. Be there on Sunday March 15 at 11am and be similarly flabbergasted by beauty. Be ready for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 basset horns, 2 bassoons, 1 double bassoon and 4 horns. They are your lucky 13.

Richard Amey