In Strauss 150th anniversary year, it seems natural to pair him with his beloved Mozart. Strauss was just 20 years old when he composed his Suite in B flat for 13 wind instruments – in the same key, although a different combination of winds, as Mozart’s famous ‘Gran Partita’ Serenade. The “heavenly length” of K361 ruled it out of this lunchtime concert, the third of the Proms Chamber Music series at Cadogan Hall, so the Mozartian partner came in the form of his Serenade in C minor K388.

London Winds © Eric Richmond
London Winds
© Eric Richmond

In the late 18th century, “Harmonie” was the term used to denote an ensemble of woodwinds, its function being to play serenades at banquets. Mozart’s Harmoniemusik – principally his three serenades – were composed in the early 1780s, soon after he had settled in Vienna. K388 would certainly have diverted the attention of diners; its key of C minor is severe and Mozart’s opening is particularly arresting. London Winds, directed from first clarinet by Michael Collins, grabbed the initiative with forthright playing, especially the martial character of the horn writing. There were nice touches of rubato, while Collins’ famed mellow sound added warmth to the softer moments. Gareth Hulse, first oboe, gave dramatic shaping to his phrasing.

Slow and steady were the watchwords for the Andante, the players relishing the sonorities Mozart creates in his different instrumental combinations. At times, a swifter pulse might have aided the cantabile line more. Mozart indulges in intellectual fun and games in the Minuet, taking the form of a canon, including a trio section for oboes and bassoons alone where the canon is ‘al rovescio’ – an inversion or ‘mirror canon’. This was quite beautifully played, each of the four parts clearly delineated. The Allegro finale again found the group in forceful mood, pushing on apace to bring the serenade to an ebullient close.

Strauss’ Op.4 Suite was composed in 1884 for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, plus four horns and a contrabassoon. It was written at the request of the conductor Hans von Bülow, who had been impressed with his earlier Serenade. It uses the Baroque suite as its model, its four movements including a Praeludium and a Gavotte, but the music is very much in a Romantic vein. It contains some wondrously confident writing and was superbly played. The quartet of horns, led by Michael Thompson no less, rang out joyously, balanced by the mercurial flute of Philippa Davies, who frequently adopted the role of leader. Collins liquid tone gave fine expression to the languorous opening phrase of the second movement Romanze.

Strauss’ third movement Gavotte is anything but stately, where the episodes with bassoon drones and perky flutes and oboes (from Figure C in the score) added a bucolic flavour to proceedings, infectiously captured here. Crepuscular horns, bassoons and clarinets give way to a clever fugue section in the finale, bringing this early masterpiece to a fitting close. There can be fewer finer advocates for this music than London Winds. Strauss returned to “harmoniemusik” in his twilight years, with the two sonatinas – “From the Invalid’s Workshop” and “The Happy Workshop”. It would be good to think that it won’t take another anniversary to warrant being programmed in this popular lunchtime Proms series.

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