Tuesday 30 August 2016

Transcending the technical challenges: Boxwood and Brass engage and delight

Boxwood and Brass
Tausch, Stamitz, Crusell, Baermann; Boxwood and Brass; Church of St Martin in the Fields
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 29 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Lively and engaging programme of late 18th and early 19th century music for wind ensemble

Boxwood and Brass is a wind ensemble which specialises in performing harmoniemusik from the late 18th and early 19th centuries on instruments of the period. The group has just released its first CD, Music for a Prussian Salon and to celebrate this gave a lunchtime concert a the church of St Martin in the Fields on Monday 29 August 2016. Clarinettists Emily Worthington and Fiona Mitchell, horn players Anneke Scott and Kate Goldsmith, and bassoon player Robert Percival, came together to perform music by Franz Tausch (1762-1817), Johann Stamitz (1717-1757), Bernhard Henrik Crusell (1775-1838) and Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847).

The key figure in the programme was Franz Tausch, who by the end of the 18th century had established himself as an influential composer in Berlin, with an extensive compositional output for wind instruments. Boxwood and Brass's programme explored Tausch music along with music which influenced him and music by his pupils. Tausch studied with his father, who was a clarinettist in the Mannheim Court Orchestra, where Johann Stamitz (along with his sons Carl and Anton) worked and was a strong influence. Tausch's pupils included the Swedish composer and clarinettist Bernhard Henrik Crusell and the clarinettist Heinrich Baermann who inspired Weber's Clarinet Concerto.

The programme opened with two movements from Tausch's 13 Pieces Op.22 for two clarinets, horn and bassoon, which were published in Paris. The Allegro combined delightful melodies with instrumental writing which explored all the possibilities of this combination of instruments, with each getting its moment in the spotlight. The Adagio was a series of interweaving long sustained lines, with Tausch's harmonic writing being interesting by no means negligible.

Next came Johann Stamitz's Quartet for Two Clarinets and Two Horns, an example of the wind writing of a previous generation. Here there was more of a classical feel to the music, and the opening Adagio  was very much led by the first clarinet. There was an interesting Mozartian cast to the graceful second Adagio. All the movements were short, and the final Allegro was delightfully toe-tapping.

The period covered  by the works in the concert showed a development in the virtuosity of writing for wind instruments. Bernard Henrik Crusell, at the Swedish court, was at the centre of a group of wind players who pushed the boundaries of their instruments. Crusell's Concert-Trio for Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon was designed for three equally virtuosic players.

The slow introduction included free showy cadenza-like passages for each of the instruments before the perky Allegro started. Crusell developed the piece with a nice ear for the varieties of texture possible, and we were definitely into Romantic territory here. All three instrumentalists had their moments in the spot light, and it was worth remembering that the technology of each instrument was more primitive than we expect today. So we had pure hand-stopping in the horn (which gives a lovely variety of colour), whilst the clarinet and bassoon had far few keys than a modern instrument. All three players (Anneke Scott, Emily Worthington and Robert Percival) gave us some spectacular playing, whilst bringing out the lovely range of colours in the instruments.

Bassoon player Robert Percival had arranged Heinrich Baermann's Adagio from his Quintet Op.23 for clarinet and strings, for the five members of Boxwood and Brass. Emily Worthington played the lovely, rather Weber-ish solo clarinet part, finely accompanied by the others. It made me want to hear the rest of the piece.

Finally we heard three more pieces from Tausch's Op.22 set, a graceful yet bouncy triple time Allemande, a very atmospheric Andante which gave the first clarinet opportunities to show off, and a fast and furious Allegro.

Throughout the concert the players made us forget that the challenges that playing such period instruments presented, allowing us to concentrate on the music and the remarkable range of colours of which the instruments are capable. We were able to not only hear some superb playing, but could also appreciate the sense of engagement and enjoyment that the performers clearly feel with this repertoire.

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