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Review of Harmoniemusik: From field to table

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Bassoonist Peter Whelan made his debut as concert Director of the Academy of Ancient Music on Friday evening in a wind band of nine players. This was the consort’s third and final performance to be live-streamed from West Road Concert Hall this Spring. And for the first time since the start of the pandemic there was a socially-distanced audience, too – a precursor, let’s hope, of many more such events to come.

Harmoniemusik was an essentially German phenomenon whose heyday lasted from about 1770 through the next 50 or so years. From somewhat lowly musical origins it evolved into a genre of immense popularity, with music composed for it often by even the greatest names, and much performed as accompaniment to social gatherings, meals and banquets (hence the concert title).

Academy of Ancient Music (47479612)
Academy of Ancient Music (47479612)

The music for this genre comprised harmonies involving often pairs of instruments, e.g. oboes, bassoons, clarinets, horns, in various arrangements where adaptability coupled with popularity could extend to performances of operatic hits, even full symphonies.

Typical of the repertoire was a Divertimento (K270) of Mozart’s with which the concert began. The AAM’s period instruments provided a true authentic sound, well adapted to the melodic liveliness of the playful exchanges, dialogue and interplay between pairs of musicians.

The demands of Harmoniemusik were testament to the calibre of the musicians of the day, and their legacy was truly inherited in the impeccable performances of Peter Whelan and Katherine Spencer on bassoon and clarinet respectively in the Duo, No. 1, WoO 27 by Beethoven.

Beethoven’s signature does not come immediately to mind in this work, especially in the haunting, almost modernist, sound of the Rondo, with both instruments wandering into their own places, then coming mysteriously together.

However, there was no doubt about the authorship of the Sextet Op. 71. The music in AAM’s delivery seemed to flow effortlessly in its reflection of Beethoven’s conception, from the two calls or statements at the beginning of the work, through its lovely Adagio, to a joyful galloping conclusion. This work alone would have announced Beethoven as a major composer, although later in life, apparently, he had a tendency to play down his earlier association with this genre.

The Academy of Ancient Music. (47479581)
The Academy of Ancient Music. (47479581)

The Partita in F Major Op. 73 by Franz Krommer concluded the concert. Krommer, Bohemian-born but settled mainly in Vienna, was described by Peter Whelan as ‘perhaps the most prolific composer you’ve never heard of’. Three hundred works are attributed to him across 110 different opus numbers, of which more than 50 are works for Harmonie.

The performance of this Partita brought the whole complement of musicians together in a work which gave ample opportunity for display to each instrument, including the double-bass replacing the part of contra-bassoon.

The jauntiness of the final movement, Alla Polacco (‘In the Polish style’), was infectious, reflecting perhaps the low-brow, folky origins of what was destined to evolve later into a more high-brow manner akin to that of chamber music.

All the terms Peter Whelan used for this Partita – colourful, entertaining, exuberant, joyous – were true of it. This being the case one would have liked to hear a little more on Krommer’s comparative neglect and why he features so infrequently in concert recitals. The AAM’s inclusion of him in their delightful programme was a revelation.


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