The tradition of Sunday morning chamber concerts in Brighton and Hove has been well established for many years, and when their future was threatened in 2010, 'Strings Attached' was established, and the concerts were brought to a safe home at the Brighton Corn Exchange, where they are now in their fourth season. Oboist Nicholas Daniel formed the Britten Oboe Quartet with colleagues, Jacqueline Shave (violin), Clare Finnimore (viola) and Caroline Dearnley (cello) from the Britten Sinfonia. Here, Daniel was master of ceremonies, introducing each piece with informative and engaging snippets about the works and their composers.

Britten Oboe Quartet © Eric Richmond
Britten Oboe Quartet
© Eric Richmond

A level of intimacy is achieved in these concerts with the performers being placed centrally with seats on all sides. However, this does mean that wherever you are, you will have a member of the ensemble performing with their back to you. Moreover, the acoustic is not generous, so this does create issues of variable balance for the audience. The quartet mitigated this by rotating their positions after the interval. However, my preference would be to see all the players, as facial expressions and communication are so much a part of the chamber music experience.

They began with a delightful Andante and Allegro for oboe and string trio, written by a 21-year old Elgar. Whilst no great claims could be made for its musical significance, nevertheless the Andante gave Daniel the opportunity to immediately demonstrate his warm tone, with impressive pianissimo control, and the sprightly Allegro which follows was played with spirit.

The Cantata for oboe and string trio by Oliver Knussen is a short single movement piece, which contains a wide variety of moods, with slow sustained building chords at the opening, leading to a complex oboe line over tremolo strings, and culminating in “a disembodied lullaby” (in Daniel’s words). Here, unsettling, rocking strings throb gently beneath a varied return of the oboe’s melody from the start of the piece.

To relax the mood, they then performed the short Adagio for Cor Anglais and String Trio, which Daniel himself completed from the composer’s incomplete fragment. This predates Mozart’s well-known Ave verum corpus by two years, and the close connection between the two works’ melodies is clear. Muted strings and the smooth liquid tones of Daniel’s cor anglais was the perfect palate cleanser after the complexities of the Knussen.

Britten’s Phantasy for oboe and string trio concluded the first half, with its dry march appearing from nowhere on the solo cello, before proceeding via a lively Allegro to a lengthy central section for strings alone – Clare Finnimore on viola deserves particular mention here for her lush solo which starts this off. An oboe cadenza, performed with consummate control by Daniel, heralds the return of the march, which then dies away back to the solo cello in the reverse of the opening.

The programme order was then slightly rejigged, Daniel explaining that the perhaps less immediately accessible Elisabeth Lutyens piece sits more readily after the interval – in his words, “after the first gin and tonic!” They performed Lutyens’ O Absalom which is a challenging yet rewarding piece to listen to, and clearly also to perform. Lutyens dedicated it to her sister, Mary, and despite its cerebral serialism, there is a surprising degree of emotion here. Daniel described the violin part as speech-like, but it has more of a lamenting, almost keening role. Daniel was required to switch several times in the piece from oboe to cor anglais. The strings produce a range of effects, including cluster chords, glassy sul ponticello and violent pizzicato slaps, with Daniel’s mournful cor anglais sections all the more moving in contrast to these effects.

Daniel was finally given a break, leaving the others to perform Lennox Berkeley’s String Trio Op.19. After Daniel’s entertaining and engaging introductions to all the other works, it felt slightly incongruous to have no preamble here, but the trio launched into the moto perpetuo opening with tight ensemble. The central Adagio gave Jacqueline Shave the opportunity to shine, with a touching violin melody over a subdued accompaniment. The bouncy rondo which followed, with impressively dancing spiccato from all three players, led to an effective slower passage of throbbing, pulsing chords, before they danced their way to a final flourish in the rousing coda.

Mozart's Oboe Quartet is clearly the benchmark composition for these musical forces, and contains some of Mozart’s most exquisite chamber writing. Perhaps as a result of all the exertions of the complex and varied preceding programme, it took until the repeat of the exposition in the first movement for a sense that the players had fully relaxed into this work that they must surely know so well. However, once there, we were treated to one of the best performances of the piece that I have heard in a long time. They took the recapitulation from a delightfully controlled pianissimo to a rousing yet poised finish. Then Daniel brought out the heart-breaking sadness of the Adagio, before launching into the dancing rondo finale, with all four players now clearly enjoying themselves. Daniel nailed the famously challenging semiquaver passage-work here, and even managed to point a few cheeky trills at the audience before it was all over.

This was an imaginative and intelligent programme, performed with great commitment and a real desire to communicate old favourites as well as the lesser-known repertoire.