Thursday night's concert offered a special opportunity to enjoy the special sonorities of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's period wind instruments. As part of the OAE's season theme of “Flying the Flag”, there was a central-European Bohemian focus, including music from Mozart's close contemporary Mysliveček.

Josef Mysliveček
Josef Mysliveček

The concert opened with Mozart's Serenade in B flat, K361, more commonly known as the “Gran Partita”, although there is no evidence to suggest Mozart had anything to do with this subtitle. The work, scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets, basset horns, bassoons, four horns and a rogue double bass, has been revered for its poignant Adagio movement, so famously used in the film adaptation of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus. The Adagio sits at the centre of a much broader, seven movement piece. At nearly an hour in length, it poses significant challenges to the wind players not only in terms of stamina but in keeping the audience engaged.

Whilst the quality of the sound was generally excellent, the ensemble filled Queen Elizabeth Hall and controlled their period instruments well, the performance was a little pedestrian. Chamber music is essentially conversational in nature; a close, lively, thoughtful exchange between an intimate group of players and that feeling was lacking. Mozart's writing is consistently rich, with many subtle antiphonal exchanges between instruments yet this quality was not conveyed in the performance. There were many well-phrased passages from both Daniel Bates' principal oboe and Antony Pay’s principal clarinet, however a lack of communication between the two made the performance slightly staid. There were a few highlights – the bassoons handled the rippling figures in the Allegretto section of the Romanze wonderfully, and the Rondo was taken at a brisk energetic pace. However, the piece never quite came together as a whole.

The second half of the concert explored more unfamiliar territory, opening with a brief Wind Octet by Josef Mysliveček. Mysliveček’s works mostly evoke the elegant style typical of Italian classicism, characterised with a wit and melodic inventiveness not dissimilar to Mozart’s. He also did much to develop Classical opera in the 18th century. The ensemble performed the Wind Octet no 2 in E flat. It is a brief piece, just under ten minutes in length and not the most dynamic calling card for a composer who rarely gets an outing today. A brief passage in which the second oboe was handed the last two notes of a scale played by the first oboe after a slight, dramatic pause elicited (intended) laughter from the audience. Mostly though this was a polite, inconsequential piece. Perhaps a chance to hear a greater selection of works or a more substantial piece by the composer would have communicated a greater sense of his relationship to Mozart and the Classical era.

The final piece was definitely the highlight of the evening. A selection of excerpts from Don Giovanni arranged for wind ensemble by Josef Triebensee. In an age before recordings, arrangements for wind ensemble were a popular way of disseminating music to a larger audience and arranging it into a more easily playable format. This often allowed for the music to be played as background music during formal events such as dinner parties, as opposed to a receptive, engaged audience. Questions about the value that this ascribed to the original score were raised even in Mozart’s time. Mozart, himself, parodies this practice in the finale of Don Giovanni, with a small onstage wind ensemble playing excerpts from his own opera The Marriage of Figaro whilst Leporello and Don Giovanni feast.

The excerpts were played with a great sense of fun by the ensemble. Much of Mozart’s operatic writing has an intricate, instrumental feel to it, and therefore the vocal lines transferred well to the wind instruments. The selections presented were mostly major-key soprano arias, with the oboe taking the leading role, therefore the suite did little to conjure or suggest the emotional intensity of the opera. Indeed, the finale skipped straight from the opening of the feast scene to the resolute, moralistic sextet that closes the work. That said, it was greatly enjoyable in its own right and a light-hearted conclusion to an evening of accomplished technical playing, but one that lacked personality until the final work.