Classical review: François Leleux/Hebrides Ensemble/BBC SSO

A SPONTANEOUS cheer went up when Lammermuir Festival co-director James Waters announced that François Leleux had agreed to be resident artist at next year’s Festival.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins drew out an inspired and inspiring performance from the BBC SSO. Picture: Chris Christodoulou

That was understandable, given what we had just heard in the opening weekend of this year’s Festival from the French oboist in an utterly charming afternoon recital in the exquisite 
Adam-designed Music Room of Yester House.

Leleux, whose distinctive tone encompasses every possible shade from breathlessly sublime to hot and fruity, was joined by an unusual string combo from the Hebrides Ensemble specifically drawn up – single violin, two violas and cello – to accommodate Mozart’s Quintet in C minor, K406, the composer’s own arrangement of his earlier wind serenade, K388, which was the final offering in Saturday’s afternoon programme.

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Leading up to that was a Mozart opener (the F major Oboe Quartet) and a variety of smaller-scale performances by various constituent parts of the ensemble.

It was these centrally-placed diversions that spoke most eloquently in the vibrant, intimate acoustics, perfect for Leleux’s solo performance of Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, theatrically 
portrayed and super-sensitive in detail, from the alluring sensuality of Pan to the conversational ambivalence of Narcissus.

And there were moments of discovery – violists Scott Dickinson and Jessica Beeston capturing the sonorous, mellow lyricism of Frank Bridge’s reconstructed Lament for 2 violas; then Leleux and cellist William Conway weaving magic out of John Bevan Baker’s artfully crafted Duo for oboe and cello.

Ironically, the Mozart performances were not so consistent. Leleux’s full-on dynamic range occasionally seemed at odds with the cooler, sometimes reticent, approach by the strings. But when things did click, the magic once again flowed.

Plenty thrills, too, in the evening’s orchestral concert by the BBC SSO, under conductor Martyn Brabbins, a programme well-suited to the glowing acoustics of St Mary’s Church. It began and ended with hot-blooded Russian passion – Glinka and Tchaikovsky – with Britten’s challenging, at times troubled and mysterious, Violin Concerto as a moving centrepiece.

Soloist Anthony Marwood adopted a direct and focused approach in the Britten, and apart from a dip in concentration in the opening movement, made a thoroughly strong case for all that is fascinating and emotionally draining in this stunning work, not least the final Passacaglia, which, with Brabbins drawing out the dark side of its orchestral textures, says everything about Britten’s questioning mind and genius.

And it was all the more powerful for having followed the adrenalin rush that was Glinka’s overture Ruslan and Lyudmila, all caution to the wind in this case and scurrilously good playing from the strings; and a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 that paced itself sensibly, an approach that allowed the blissful slow movement horn theme all the space it needed to express freely, and elsewhere never laboured, but moved like thrilling, restless gusts of wind.