Classical & Opera: Soaring over the strings

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Each year the always-inviting Spitalfields Summer Festival, in the magnificent setting of Nicholas Hawksmoor's Christ Church, seems to go from strength to strength. This June, the line-up has been as eclectic and forward-thinking as ever - a dazzling range of early and classical musics from a host of fine ensembles, supported by some of the very best free lunchtime concerts to be had anywhere in London.

Yet under the pioneering artistic directorship of composer Judith Weir, new music at Spitalfields remains, as ever, a vital element in the programming; and one can't get much newer than a brand new Oboe Quintet from the ever- intriguing British composer John Woolrich (right).

Commissioned by and just played at the Leicester International Music Festival, Woolrich's Oboe Quintet now receives a swift follow-up London premiere at Christ Church. For the composer it is the fifth piece he has written with oboist Nicholas Daniel's unique talents in mind. These already included a stunningly original and thrillingly scored Oboe Concerto, which received rapturous acclaim when premiered at the Proms two summers ago. Now, with the Oboe Quintet, Woolrich should have provided yet another exciting new addition to the genre, though as he says: "There isn't much of an Oboe Quintet repertoire in the first place - a few Oboe Quartets and, I think, Bliss came up with a Quintet - not that I've looked at it in writing my own."

Yet, for Woolrich, it seems the five instruments he employs proved the right vehicle to explore another aspect of his current musical thinking. "Perhaps my works of late form a kind of tapestry," he says. "For example, I'm currently working on a Cello Concerto which quotes from this Quintet".

Equally, it seems that the Oboe Quintet itself picks up and re-examines territory of an earlier Piano Quartet and String Quartet. Ever willing to try something new, Woolrich has explored a number of chamber permutations in recent works and, for him, believes the Oboe Quintet to have been a "good combination, in which I try to integrate the two sets of forces, so it's not just a string quartet with an oboe line over the top". That said, it does seem the the oboe is very much the vocalist in the set-up - an instrument that "can sing out

over the strings", especially

when played by a musician of Nicholas Daniel's standing, a virtuoso whose playing and general musicianship Woolrich greatly admires.

As to an actual specific impetus behind his Oboe Quintet, Woolrich is reticent to pinpoint one, though he concedes that it is "a piece of mourning and deliberately elegiac". Yet as to the work's ultimate character, he is more forthcoming, describing it as "intense, introspective and darkly coloured". Around 20 minutes in length, the opus is made up of an overlapping series of episodes - no fewer than 27 in all - which seem to form a network of laments, nocturnes, fragments and echoes - a "set of variations". What seems to be certain is that Daniel's virtuosity will be tested to its limits. "Yes, it is difficult to execute," says the composer. "Nick can do a lot with his oboe, so I perhaps push him that bit further."

Dedicated to Nicholas Daniel, Woolrich's Quintet has the oboist, the quartet and, in Christ Church, the setting, for what is an eagerly awaited new music highlight.

John Woolrich's Oboe Quintet is performed between Mozart's Oboe Quintet K.406 and Beethoven's late op.132 quartet, with Nicholas Daniel joining the Schidlof Quartet. Christ Church, Spitalfields, E1 (0171-377 1362) 23 Jun, 7.30pm

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