Lammermuir Festival review: Francois Leleux and the Hebrides Ensemble

First published in The Herald on 22 September, 2014

The terrific French oboist Francois Leleux was artist in residence at this year’s Lammermuir Festival, and he used the opportunity to explore repertoire from Bach to Berio. He is a fearless, flawless player (during this recital he breezily turned pages with one hand while playing with the other). His sound is plush and enormous. It would be a treat to hear him in just about any music.

That said, his choice of an arrangement of Mozart’s great ‘Gran Partita’ serenade was bizarre. He led the Hebrides Ensemble in a reduction for oboe, string trio and piano made by a contemporary of Mozart called Christian Schwenke, presumably to suit a combination of instruments available at the time. Why play it now? The Gran Partita is a glorious piece of wind writing full of weird and wonderful colours: that squeezebox gaggle of basset horns, that lavishly dark, buzzy combination of bassoons and horns. Inevitably Schwenke channelled much of the orchestration into the piano part, which even in Philip Moore’s classy hands sounded like the filler it is.

There was some fine playing (and some ropey playing) in this performance, but it never came close to the majesty of the original. Where was the textural magic at the beginning of the Adagio? Where was the playful spark in the Theme and Variations? Without the intriguing instrumental pairings the minuets felt long – and the Gran Partita should never feel long.

The programme opened with Oliver Knussen’s short Cantata for oboe and string trio. This is gorgeous writing, and very vocal. Leleux’s lines were rhapsodic, then passionately agitated, then a puckish, crazed dance, then a soaring voice against pale, lapping strings. The closing bars are classic Knussen atmosphere, beautifully evoked here.