The newly formed ensemble Grand Harmonie is “dedicated to historically-informed performances of music written by composers spanning from Mozart to Brahms, on the instruments for which their music was written” (to quote the program notes). String ensembles and mixed ensembles with similar aims abound; but to find a small group dedicating itself to the Classical and Romantic repertoire is unusual and interesting, the more so since the ensemble consists entirely of wind instruments. On Sunday in the Gordon Chapel of Old South Church in Boston, Grand Harmonie performed a program of Mozart, Soler, Salieri, and Beethoven, mustering two Classical oboes, two Classical clarinets, two natural horns, and two Classical bassoons.
With the natural horns, many of our readers will be familiar; Yoni Kahn and Elisabeth Axtell played them well, with virtuosity, and in tune — no easy feat without valves. The Classical oboes, clarinets, and bassoons are all at various stages between the keyless (or nearly keyless) Baroque versions and the familiar key-studded modern instruments. Grand Harmonie does not use any matched sets. One of the oboes, for example, has six keys and the other has eight, but the result is an ensemble with a colorful, varied, and still well blended sound. For the Soler Divertimento, Thomas Carroll and Owen Watkins traded their clarinets for a pair of basset horns, a tenorish clarinet with an angle in the middle, a chunky S-bend at the lower end, and a metal horn at the tip for resonance. Both instruments were built by Thomas Carroll; one in the Viennese style, and the other in the narrower-bored German style.
The program began and ended with two symphonies, miniature in forces though not in scale: Mozart’s Serenade in C Minor (K. 388) and Beethoven’s Octet in E-Flat Major, op. 103. Between the Mozart and the intermission, the ensemble played Vicente Martín y Soler’s Divertimento on Una Cosa Rara, a set of three transcriptions by the composer from his vastly popular opera. The first movement, “Un briccone senza core” (a rogue without a heart), is a duo of quarrelling lovers (not the main pair, but a secondary set); the second movement is the heroine’s consolatory aria from the second act, “Consola le pene” (comfort the suffering), in which she chides her bothered lover for doubting her fidelity, prettily reset with the oboe as soloist; and the third movement is the rollicking drinking song, “O quanto un si bel giubilo” (O how is one so jubilant), which was such a hit at the time that Mozart quoted it in Don Giovanni. The second half of the concert began with Salieri’s Trio in G Major, a charming piece, particularly the hilarious concluding Minuetto. The piece had the benefit, through its thinner texture, of allowing one to appreciate the mellifluous agility of the classical bassoon in greater relief.
The extent of the Classical repertoire for this all-wind ensemble is such that it is astonishing that modern groups devoting themselves to it are not more common. Grand Harmonie will certainly fill a most regrettable gap. I am sure a little more time working together (they were formed only three months ago; this was the group’s debut), combined with its busy concert schedule in the next few months (Reicha and Rossini later this month; Schumann, Cherubini, and Mozart in January; Mozart, Weber, and Schubert in March; Mendelssohn in May) will smooth out the few blemishes (a ragged entrance here and there, a few disagreements in pitch between the oboes’ highest registers) that were apparent on Sunday. All in all, the ensemble is a delightful addition to the panoply of New England groups involved in historical performance practice, and I look forward to hearing Grand Harmonie in the rest of the season.