Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Angel of Mons - premiere of Judith Bingham's oboe concerto

Red Note Ensemble - photo credit Wattie Cheung
Red Note Ensemble
photo credit Wattie Cheung
Bingham, Adams, Barber, RVW; Michal Rogalski, Red Note Ensemble; JAM at the City of London Festival, St. Andrew's Church, Holborn.
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 11 2014
Star rating: 4.0

World premiere of Judith Bingham's oboe concerto in a dramatic and characterful programme

Michal Rogalski
Michal Rogalski
For the second of their City of London Festival concerts, JAM presented the Scottish Red Note Ensemble in a programme of music for strings and oboe, which included the world premiere of Judith Bingham's Oboe Concerto: The Angel of Mons alongside Bingham's 2012 JAM commission, The Hythe, plus RVW's Oboe Concerto and music by John Adams and Samuel Barber. Red Note Ensemble, leader Jacqueline Shave, performed at St Andrew's Church, Holborn, London EC4A 3AB on Friday 11 July. The solo oboist was Michal Rogalski.

The concert opened with Judith Bingham's Oboe Concerto: The Angel of Mons which was commissioned by JAM. The work is written for solo oboe and small string ensemble (Red Note performed with 11 players). Bingham heard the London-based Polish oboist Michal Rogalski performing with Red Note last year, which gave her the idea for writing for this combination of forces. The work is inspired by the legend of the Angel of Mons, in which an Angel appeared to British soldiers during the Retreat from Mons and helped save the allies from the German forces. The Battle of Mons and the Retreat from Mons were the first encounters between the Germans and the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War.

The Angel of Mons - R Crowhurst (c1920) - image credit National Army Museum
The Angel of Mons
R Crowhurst (c1920)
image credit National Army Museum
Bingham's concerto is in four movements, exploring the rise of the dragon of war, a sense of impending defeat, the interventions of supernatural forces and a resurgence of courage leading to victory. She imagined the solo oboist as a solitary figure standing at the side of the road, trying to intervene, reason and dissuade. The result is a highly appealing and dramatic work, with much vivid string writing complementing a solo oboe part which showed off not only Rogalski's fine bravura technique, but also his sense of line and wonderfully mellow sound. Much of the string writing reminded me of the tradition of mid European 20th century string music. But also, the sound world that Bingham evoked with her writing for oboe and strings also hinted at Jean Langlais' L'Horloge de Fleurs.

This was an intelligently approachable piece, with some highly imaginative touches. The work started darkly with just the cellos and bass, then joined by Rogalski's lovely mellow oboe in a striking texture. There were many such moments, for example the static high writing for strings, punctuated by solo double bass.comments which began the third movement (when the Angel appears). There were showy solo moments for Rogalski, and even cadenza like moments, but there was also a sense that the oboe part was finely integrated into the sense of narrative.

The performance from Rogalski and Red Note was exemplary, and I am sure that this work is a fine addition to the repertoire of solo oboe works.

Red Note followed this with John Adams' Shaker Loops, performing the original version for just seven strings. Adams wrote the piece in 1978 and it explores a variety of different string techniques, putting each in a loop and layering them with Adams familiar combination of repetition and energy. The work needs intense concentration to bring off with seven players without a conductor, and Red Note's performance was a complete tour de force. It had an intense, tightly wound-up quality, which drove it along, though in some of the middle sections Adams also explores a feeling of stasis as well. For all the brilliance of the piece and the superb performance, I could not get away from the fact that for me Adams seems to dwell too long in each of the different sections, and more than once I kept telling him to move on.

Another familiar work was Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, given a performance which seemed full of character and had some lovely moments. Without the lush bloom of a large string section, the performance was closer to the intensity of the original string quartet version of the score.

Judith Bingham's The Hythe was commissioned by JAM in 2012 and first performed at the City of London Festival by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (see my review). In four movements, the piece was inspired by the Anglo-Saxon poems The Wanderer, The Ruin and The Seafarer with difficulties of sea travel forming a metaphor for the soul's journey to God. Melancholy, richly sung lines and haunting textures depict the loneliness of life at sea. The poet is spurred on to another journey by a dance-like movement, which was sinister and threatening. Finally a characterful violin solo from Jacqueline Shave over a ground bass-like figure led to the vibrant climax. This was a strong and characterful performance of a fascinating work, one I come to appreciate the more I hear it.

Finally, Rogalski returned to the platform as the soloist in RVW's Oboe Concerto, which was written for Leon Goossens in 1944. The work comes just after RVW's Fifth Symphony and shares that work's intense muscular pastoralism and autumnal melancholy. It is a work which requires a strong, secure technique and great stamina from the soloist, but RVW generally disguises this. The oboe part is generally lyrical and flowing, often with lots of notes and the work needs to seem effortless. This Rogalski did, impressing with his mellow tone and evenly flowing flurries of notes. He also encompassed the work's very long lines rather impressively. The concerto starts in a lyrically pastoral mode but by the third movement, has developed quiet intensity and poignancy, which Rogalski and Red Note brought out admirably.

Red Note is Scotland's contemporary music ensemble, founded in 2008 by the Scottish cellist Robert Irvine.  Irvine and John Harris are joint Artistic Directors. Polish oboist Michal Rogalski moved to London in 2012, prior to this he played regularly with Minnesota Opera and the Minnesota Orchestra. He studied at the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, the University of North Carolina School of Arts and the University of Minnesota.

The concert was repeated on Saturday 12 July in Lydd as part of the JAM on the Marsh festival (which runs until July 20). JAM returns to the City of London Festival on 16 July with the Mousai Singers giving the English premiere of Giles Swayne's The Yonghy Bonghy Bo (a concert which is repeated as part of JAM on the Marsh on July 19 in Hythe.

Recordings of Judith Bingham's music on Amazon
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