In the beautiful setting of the chapter house featuring some of Durham’s finest wind players, this concert was set to be a treat, and it did not disappoint. The first half showcased the combined forces of the Divinity Quintet and Friends and was conducted by Charlie Criswell, with the second half performed by the quintet alone. Although this is opposite to the expected progression from a smaller ensemble to a larger group, the Quintet and Friends provided an exquisite start, enhanced by the unparalleled acoustic of the chapter house.
The first piece in the programme, Richard Strauss’ Wind Serenade in Eb major, Op. 7, began with a clear and expressive oboe solo from Catherine Walker that carried easily over the underlying parts. The balance between the players was carefully addressed, allowing the melody to be seamlessly passed through the ensemble without any part being overpowered, showing the players’ sensitivity to each other and the music. The French horns made a strong, triumphant sound all together, although they could have benefitted from slightly more pronounced articulation to give the dotted figures slightly more clarity (a feature which was, however, hindered by the extreme resonance of the performance space). Overall, there was good dynamic contrast but I felt the ensemble could have been even more daring in the quiet sections. Having said this, this first piece was truly mesmerising with wonderful intonation and effective articulation, especially in the flutes and oboes; a brilliant way to start the concert.
The second work was another by Strauss: Suite for Winds in Bb major, Op.4. The first movement suffered from a slightly messy start but the players recovered quickly. THe audience were treated to another oboe solo from Catherine, full of light and shade which, again, carried well over the other parts. This piece highlighted the ensemble’s strong forte playing, even if the softer dynamics could have, once again, been even quieter. Despite a couple of untidy entries from the horns, the triplet motive towards the end of the piece was well executed, with George Evans-Thomas’ higher register really coming through well.
The Romanze featured a soaring clarinet solo from Cam Wyke with some particularly beautiful top notes. Flautists Ellie Knott and Ellie Holland let their pure sound float elegantly away. At times, there was an imbalance of parts, for example the clarinet was occassionally clouded by surrounding parts, but the overall sound made by this relatively small ensemble was very powerful and individual parts generally carried well in the chapter house. The Gavotte was started impishly and characterfully by the bassoons and featured some well executed semi quaver runs in the other parts. These, however, could have been brought out a little more to enhance their clarity. The bassoons also provided a solid bass line, even if their pedal notes were a little loud at times.
The final movement was arguably the trickiest of the four. There were a couple of very minor tuning issues here, noticeably at one of the horn entries and very occasionally in the lower registers of the flutes. There was also an occasional lack of rhythmic clarity in the fugue but Charlie Criswell, making his conducting debut, handled this well. The finale was powerful with great accents and conviction from all players, rounding off the first half in style. Congratulations must go to Thomas Feild on contrabassoon who laid a solid foundation for the rest of the ensemble, and the synchronised bobbing in the bassoons (Saul Rigg and Patrick Norén) was also entertaining to watch! All in all, the Divinity Quintet and Friends put on a stellar performance with great balance, sensitivity, and musicianship.
The second half of the concert began with Beethoven’s Adagio and Allegro for Musical Clock, arranged by Vester Frans, and it is safe to say that this piece ran like clockwork! Catherine’s opening oboe solo of the adagio was supported well by Charlie Criswell’s babbling clarinet accompaniment and Saul’s tasteful placement of the outline of the bass. Ellie’s flute solos were pure and sweet with clean ornaments and were sensitively accompanied by the rest of the ensemble. There were a few shaky entries from George Evans-Thomas on the horn but he displayed an overall accomplished performance, especially in the higher register. The allegro was equally pleasing with delightful character and bounce. The quintet was slightly in danger of rushing but they just managed to hold it back, stylishly executing this short but sweet movement.
The final work of the night was Mozart’s Serenade in C minor, K. 388 and K. 406, arranged by Mordechai Rechtman. The Allegro featured some lovely unison playing from Ellie and George but, later on, there were some slight discrepancies in intonation between the oboe and flute, and the bassoon crotchets were occasionally too heavy. Having said this, the balance in the Andantewas very good, especially in the imitation between the flute and the rest of the quintet. The Menuet and Trio had a pleasing lilt to it and featured some wonderful dynamics and articulation, especially from Charlie. There were moments which lacked rhythmic clarity in the trio, especially in the lower registers, but these were short lived. Finally, the Allegro featured a quietly virtuosic semiquaver accompaniment which was very well performed by Saul, and Ellie’s tonal colour (especially on the higher notes) was lovely to hear. The ensemble playing in this work was generally very good and quite easily transported the listeners to another world!
Ellie Knott founded the Divinity Quintet in 2016, with a view to creating a wind ensemble of a very high standard, fostering a friendly and collaborative atmosphere. This intention came through tonight in many ways: the visible connection between the players, the audible, musical respect that they held for one another, and the collaboration of an expanded group of top quality musicians and genuine friends. It was a joy to watch and hear such wonderful music being produced in this way and seemed to be a representation of all that music is about: beauty, friendship, and enjoyment. Hats off to Ellie for working so hard to make this ensemble a success, and here’s hoping that the society will continue to blossom and carry on the sterling efforts of this talented group of musicians in years to come.