Among the standard instrumental combinations, the woodwind quintet is an oddball. Although all the members technically belong to the same family, it is a rather dysfunctional one. Each instrument has more characteristics that differ from the others than not, and creating a convincing musical blend of the five is a test of skill for any composer.
On January 11th in Jordan Hall, wind players of the BSO presented with near technical and musical flawlessness two works that demonstrate different approaches to the challenges of this ensemble. In his Never Sing Before Breakfast (1989), Steven Mackey takes full advantage of the mismatched tone—colors with amusing theatricality. Each instrument’s individual voice is heard against the others as they all chatter away in humorous, pointillistic melodic fragments, combining to create a work with all the hues and moods of a spirited family—dinner conversation. The piece also includes pre—recorded sounds—bits of talk and noise from Mackey’s own parental home—that try to echo this image. They are so sparse and unclear, however, that they seem incidental, a fuzzy sound—track underscoring the crisp, filigreed quintet that could stand just as well on its own.
Preceding the Mackey was Ingolf Dahl’s Allegro and Arioso (1942). A fascinating work of high craftsmanship, it embodies mid—20th century Germanic chromaticism and textural density. Both the darkly energetic first section and the coldly lyrical second section make use of thick counterpoint to which the balkanized timbres of the woodwind quintet are uniquely suited: each melodic line is clear and present. However, at points in the work, Dahl is also able to mesh the various tone-colors to striking effect, such as in the extraordinary final measures in which the instruments seem to melt together and the entire piece fades to a stomach—sinking black.
These works for winds were bookended by two pieces for various combinations of strings, a very happy musical family of infinite possibilities. Opening the concert was Gioacchino Rossini’s pre—teen bagatelle Sonata a Quattro Nr. 4 (1804). Despite the composer’s own assessment of the work as “horrid”, it is charming music. Scored for the unusual quartet of two violins, cello, and bass, it also offers a remarkable ensemble texture. In this performance, however, it sounded as if the BSO string players wanted to luxuriate in that texture a bit too much. That tendency worked beautifully for the slow and lovely middle movement, but bogged down somewhat the sprightly playfulness of the outer movements.
If the lack of viola in the Rossini bothered any listener, it was made up for by the String Quintet No. 1, Op. 88 (1882) of Johannes Brahms, a master of the small string ensemble. Scored for string quartet plus viola, it is a rich, pastoral work, unusually concise for this composer, and featuring a brilliantly conceived second movement of moody contrasts. Although the players did not quite capture the extremes of lush lyricism and thick—textured intensity that drive this music, the performance was engagingly sensitive and energetic; a rousing closer to a program of satisfying variety.