I thoroughly enjoyed all six of these delightful and interesting works on this new CD from London Myriad. But first a word of caution. Listen to these works one at a time. There is a danger that unremitting flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon will all melt into one great mass of puff and blow. All these pieces are mini-masterpieces, and each deserve our individual attention. I suggest a listening strategy: I began with Richard Rodney Bennett and promptly read up the fulsome liner notes. And went from there…
In 1975 Bennett wrote a set of Travel Notes for string quartet. They were largely snapshots of means of travel, written with a film composer’s ‘panache.’ These included ‘A Walking Tune’, ‘In a Hearse’, ‘On Horseback’, ‘In a Pram’ and ‘Express Train.’ The following year he composed Travel Notes II for wind quartet. If any composer influenced this work, it must be Francis Poulenc. The cool opening ‘In an Air Balloon’ is a slow saunter. The flight ‘In a Helicopter’ is a brilliant little scherzo with unhurried conclusion. As relaxed as the ‘Balloon’ is ‘In a Bath Chair.’ This is gentle music, with a gorgeous tune. Nowadays it would be hell for leather in a mobility scooter. The final number is a ‘Car Chase’. This well-contrived little scherzo is more Keystone Kops than James Bond. Travel Notes II may be light music, but it is technically of high quality and ideally written for the genre.
I moved onto Jacques Ibert’s ‘Deux Mouvements’. Since learning to play his light-hearted piano piece, A Giddy Girl some 45 years ago I have enjoyed listening to his music. Important orchestral works include Escales (Ports) (1922) and the ever-popular Divertissement (1929). But it is chamber music that most often seems to have attracted his attention. He wrote for several different combinations. This wind quartet is idiomatic and presents approachable, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek music that entertains and amuses. Always lyrical in tone, these two short pieces are a splendid exercise in composition for this combination.
Jean Françaix’s four-movement Quartet was written in 1933 when the composer was 21 years of age. Françaix gave a fitting description of this piece as ‘a fusion of Machiavelli and magic.’ Presumably with ‘Machiavellianism’ meaning the manipulative tendencies of this music rather than an allusion to scheming, popular politics of the man himself. The composition displays impetuous themes that are typically light-hearted and largely straightforward. The clever bit is the constantly changing moods, tempo and timbre. Just occasionally, there is something a little bit more poetic and calmer. The music is a pleasure from end to end, with little to cloud the neo-classical humour and wit of the entire work.
I had not heard of the French composer Louise Marie Simon (1903-90) before hearing this CD. For reasons unknown, she adopted the pseudonym Claude Arrieu. Perhaps this was to fend off negative judgements of her music because of her gender. On the other hand, there were several eminent female composers in Paris at that time, including Nadia Boulanger and Germaine Tailleferre. The liner notes explain that Arrieu wrote more than 400 works in a wide variety of genres, however chamber music was ‘where she best demonstrates her love of melody…’ This was at a time when ‘melody’ was not necessarily a popular word with the musical cognoscenti. The ‘Suite en Quatre’ was composed as late as 1979. Its frankly neo-classical style does seem a wee bit dated, yet the equilibrium between lyricism, a little bit of musical fury and a more hard-edged sound creates a satisfying work. ‘Claude Arrieu’ clearly understands the range and technical limitations of each instrument, and, more to the point the subtle balance of these timbres within the progress of the ‘quartet’.
Eugene Bozza’s (1905-91) Trois Pièces Pour Une Musique De Nuit were written in 1954. Not altogether convincing as a ‘nocturne’ per se, this piece is full of interest. The opening ‘andantino’ is a little ‘lullaby’ that has the flute, oboe and clarinet singing a soothing melody with the bassoon player providing the ‘lilting’ accompaniment. The ‘scherzo’ is typically French in temper. It fairly bounces along. The finale, which is a ‘moderato’, is in the form of a chorale. The liner notes hit the nail on the head by describing this as ‘melodious and mesmerising.’ This movement comes nearest to creating a crepuscular mood.
The last piece that I tackled was Frank Bridge’s Divertimenti (H.189). This work began life as two duets for flute and oboe, but was expanded to include clarinet and bassoon, as well as having two extra movements. It was completed in 1938 and dedicated to Mrs Sprague Coolidge. The opening movement is a vibrant and urgent ‘Prelude’, at least in the opening and closing sections where it has fanfare-like figurations. The middle part is more reflective. The haunting ‘Nocturne’ is long and introspective: it features only the flute and oboe and creates an absorbing if sometimes depressing contrapuntal conversation. The ‘Scherzetto’ is scored for the clarinet and bassoon only. It is another discourse, but this time somewhat animated with ‘darkly humorous dotted sections.’ Motifs are tossed around like a breezy autumn day. The final movement includes all four instruments. This is, as the liner notes state, not serious music, but does as it says on the tin, ‘diverts’. Yet deep down there is an autumnal sadness about this work that is hard to escape.
I have already mentioned the excellent liner notes provided with this CD. The oboist Fiona Joyce Myall has provided informative biographical details as well as a working description of each piece. There is a short introduction to London Myriad’s recording project as well as thumbnail photos of all six composers.
The quality of the recording is ideal for music that demands clarity of the instrumental colour which exploits the individual characteristics, timbres and tonal range of four related, but diverse instruments. Most of these works are new to me. But the performances are convincing and always satisfy the listener’s interest.
I understand that the second part of this project is to commission new works from a variety of composers. It is to be looked forward to, however, it will have to be something truly remarkable to beat the repertoire for wind quartet presented on this present CD.
Eugène BOZZA (1905-91) Trois Pièces Pour Une Musique de Nuit (1954)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Divertimenti, H.189 (1938)
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997) Quatuor (1933)
Richard Rodney BENNETT (1936-2012) Travel Notes 2 (1976)
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962) Deux Mouvements (1922)
Claude ARRIEU (1903-90) Suite en Quatre (1979)
Julie Groves (flute), Fiona Joyce Myall (oboe), Nadia Wilson (clarinet), Ashley Myall (bassoon)
Rec. Studio 1, The University of Surrey, Guildford, 21-22 September 2014 Bozza, Bridge, Françaix); Whitgift Concert Hall, Croydon, 24 July and 6 August 2018 (Bennett, Ibert, Arrieu)
MÉTIER msv 28587 [55:31]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.