Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen at Leicester International Music Festival – review
Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen 20th October 2016
After their triumphs in the Festival I looked forward with surprisingly modified rapture to the swift return to the city of those fine artists Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen for the second concert of the Lunchtime Series. This featured Bach, Rubbra and Schumann.
We all hear music differently and we all have preferences but, when referring to the two greatest of composers of the first part of the 18c. and declaring my preference for Handel, I have been in the past subject to withering glances. Of course, I realise that Bach is worshipped like few other composers by people whose judgements are to be mightily respected and as it happens I do enjoy many of the master’s works. However,I have come to realise that colour and direct human drama are often central to my enjoyment. In a way Bach is perfect but too often in performance I seem aware of the wonders of a world akin to mathematics, a world which I struggle to enter, of a great mind exploring all the possibilities of musical material. I remember Raymond Leppard , who long ago pioneered the revival of an interest in Baroque Opera, once on television exploring a Bach work and at one moment in his inimitably wry manner remarking that Bach being Bach could not leave well alone.
In the 20c Edmund Rubbra presents me with similar problems. At one point I bought a number of CD’s of his symphonies and chamber works and was at times impressed, but it passed. Something about the music’s intense seriousness made it pall and recently, whilst reading a CD booklet, the reason became clear to me. The composer went on record as seeing colour as a secondary feature of music and a dense highly wrought structure as crucial to significant achievement. This for me results in a palette that is quite often beautiful but with too little dramatic variety.
And yet in this concert things turned out rather differently, not least because it showed how two great artists can transform the listening experience. Rubbra’s Oboe Sonata, perhaps because of the pre-eminence of the bright wood wind, sounded quite unlike anything else I had heard of his. It has something of the composer’s luminosity but also a clarity and bounce not always found in his music. The slow movement had a limpid quality and the last movement an ear catching vivacity. One wonders whether the well known sparkling personality of its dedicatee, Evelyn Rothwell, had something to do with the nature of this music.
Schumann’s Three Romances is the composer at his most intimate. No musician has given greater luminosity to the domestic life and in a loving and affectionate performance both artists took one into the centre of that personal world.
And so to Bach, who book ended the concert with two sonatas. Here pleasure was complete. One was struck by the fact that , perhaps like Mozart, Bach is one of the composers most difficult to get right in the playing. Some performances concern themselves with lucid structure and finish up sounding like a metronome. Others import an alien expressiveness which sounds and is false. Both artists here managed to find a middle way which was compelling. Charles Owen is an artist always seeking to be as true to the composer’s world as he can be and here he managed to combine a clarity with inflections which gave the music a dancing vibrant life. Nicholas Daniel simply dazzled in his ability at times to send a phrase floating in the air like a feather without impeding the flow one bit. Quite astonishing. I think I still prefer Handel but..!
Neil Roberts, October 2016