Philharmonia / Austin, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Philharmonia's Music of Today season got off to an auspicious start with a rare chance to hear two substantial compositions by the Independent music critic Bayan Northcott.

The Philharmonia's Music of Today season got off to an auspicious start with a rare chance to hear two substantial compositions by the Independent music critic Bayan Northcott. Northcott's Sonata for Solo Oboe (1978) was written when he was 38, but it is his Op 1, and an accomplished and mature example of an earliest acknowledged work.

Gordon Hunt, the principal oboist of the Philharmonia, relished the score's opportunities for virtuosity without endangering its structural cohesion. Scrupulous adherence to the copious dynamic and expressive markings in the mercurial opening movement occasionally came close to an over-literal interpretation, but the eloquently expressive aria-like central movement was most affecting. The charming minuet-rondo finale, stippled with Haydnesque "Scotch snap" figures, made an effective contrast.

An extended piece for a solo instrument is tough to bring off, but Northcott's fluent single lines succeeded in hinting at their own harmonies. Here was a composer confidently establishing his own voice.

The Concerto for Horn and Ensemble was begun 12 years after the sonata and completed a further eight years later. It is only Op 8. The concerto was written as a reaction against the tide of minimalism, of which the composer offered this roguish definition in prefatory remarks: "Endless accompaniment to tunes that never arrive."

The piece ranges stylistically between quasi-tonality and a densely chromatic Expressionism, especially in the intense, Bergian motifs of the opening movement. In the unashamedly emotional central largo, the soloist's initial lament is soothed by remote string invocations, and the ensuing scuttling scherzo builds to a climactic return of the lament, now faint and disembodied.

A set of variations over a ground bass launches the finale, but the soloist chivvies the ensemble on to a quicker tempo. A grand restatement by the soloist of the ground bass and bell-led exaltations are rounded off by a resounding long-held unison C. The Philharmonia, especially the principal horn Laurence Davies, aided by the sure-footed direction of Christopher Austin, had the measure of this singular work.

The influence of Alexander Goehr, an early mentor, is discernible in the theme and variations format of the concerto's finale and the fantasia-like episode in the sonata's central movement, as well as in the fusion and juxtaposition of diverse material in both works. The vivid horn-writing and use of ground bass in the concerto evoke Britten. However, the musical personality behind the music is defiantly individual.

Critics who compose are scarce: only Havergal Brian comes readily to mind. Brian enjoyed a prolific old age, and it would be good to have a bumper late harvest from Northcott.

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