The Oslo Chamber Academy was founded in 2009 by Oslo Philharmonic solo oboist David Strunck, and specialises in chamber music for winds. They take as their starting point the Harmonie of the mid-18th century, essentially a small wind band, but often branch out to the Harmonie’s musical descendants, most importantly the wind quintet. This concert aimed to highlight instruments not usually featured in music for wind ensembles, taking the wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) as a frame of reference and adding other, more exotic instruments not commonly found in chamber musical settings.

Oslo Chamber Academy © Anne Julia Granberg
Oslo Chamber Academy
© Anne Julia Granberg

Because of this desire to include unusual instruments, it struck me as odd to start with Carl Reinecke’s Sextet in B flat major. The piece is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, two horns and bassoon which, more than anything, led to balance issues, the horns occasionally drowning out the other instruments. Reinecke is most known as his work as a composition teacher, teaching composers as diverse as Grieg, Albéniz and Janáček, but he also left behind a considerable compositional output. While the sextet had some lovely moments, in particular the impish third movement, it struck me as overlong, especially the gently flowing first movement.

With Charles Koechlin’s Septet for wind quintet, English horn and alto saxophone, things took a turn for the more light-hearted. Koechlin is not very well known today, yet he was a prominent figure in French musical life in the first half of the 20th century, with a penchant for Hollywood film stars and socialism. His septet is at least partly autobiographical, several of the movements taking inspiration from the composer’s life. The sixth and final movement is a fugue based on a song his son Yves would sing aged four, and it was written upon Koechlin learning of his son’s return after having run away. The original title of the septet is even Caprice sur le retour de mon fils Yves (“Caprice on the return of my son Yves”). The fourth movement, the other fugue of the piece, is, rather pleasingly, an ode to the comfort of American railway carriages, written as it was on the train from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The piece was deftly played, especially the atmospheric fifth movement Sérénité, where all the musical material emerges from a single note, an A played on the saxophone. Also worthy of mention was the first movement Monodie for solo clarinet, beautifully played by Pierre Xhonnaux. It is written as a single, continuous, singing line, almost a sort of walking song, before being seamlessly joined by the flute and bassoon for the second movement Pastorale.

Henri Tomasi’s Printemps for wind quintet and saxophone depicts birds being awakened by the sun and then gathering for a dance. However simplistic the premise, it allowed the composer to exploit the wildly different sonorities of the wind instruments and their abilities to mimic nature sounds, especially the clarinet, oboe and flute. In Printemps, frenzied birdcalls intertwine with languorous, almost yawning melodies – part Messiaen, but mostly Ravel – before settling into a lop-sided dance, the birdcalls themselves forming the rhythmic drive of the dancing. The dance ends on a rather orgasmic note: just what the birds were up to was not left to the imagination! The players threw themselves into the music with abandon and a wonderful playfulness. This music, with its short motifs jumping from one instrument to another, can often become static, with nothing holding things together, but it was played with an impressive sense of direction throughout.

Continuing the somewhat autobiographical theme of Koechlin's Septet was Leoš Janáček’s Mládí for wind quintet and bass clarinet. The inclusion of a bass clarinet added a surprising depth to the sound, which is not achievable with bassoon alone. Mládí means “youth” in Czech, and it was written at the end of Janáček’s life, and shows him looking back on his childhood, which he spent as a choirboy in an Augustinian abbey. The piece is a nostalgic look back at what must have been, at least in retrospect, a mainly happy childhood. Janáček even based a recurring motif on the intonation of the words “youth, golden youth” in Janáček’s native Moravian. Especially delightful was the second movement, reminiscent of choral singing, with frequent mischievous interruptions, as was the wonderfully hormonal fourth movement.

The Oslo Chamber Academy is perhaps something of a hidden secret in the Oslo music world, but few ensembles manage such effortless virtuosity and playfulness. It would really be a shame to let them remain in obscurity for much longer.