in: Reviews

February 12, 2010

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet Demonstrate Complete Mastery

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There are not nearly so many woodwind quintets touring the world as there are string quartets, but one of the most highly regarded, a quintet made up of players from the Berlin Philharmonic made its Boston debut under the auspices of the Celebrity Series at Jordan Hall on February 5.

The players, all members of the Berlin Philharmonic, consisted of Michael Hasel (flute), Andreas Wittmann (oboe), Walter Seyfarth (clarinet, and founder of the ensemble), Fergus McWilliam (horn), and Marion Reinhard (bassoon). It is only be to expected that all five of these musicians would demonstrate complete mastery of their instruments as well as the kind of perfection in ensemble that comes from long practice and familiarity with one another.

The wind quintet is a very different animal from the most familiar of chamber music ensembles, the string quartet. The latter consists of instruments that bear a close family resemblance in playing technique and sonority; the sound of a string quartet is generally homogenous for this reason, unless the players take great pains to differentiate themselves for expressive effect. The wind quintet is almost the exact opposite. The five instruments that make up the quintet are strange bedfellows, consisting of two that produce the sound through a double reed (oboe and bassoon), one that produces its sound with a single reed (clarinet), one that is a kind of elaborate whistle, with no reed at all (flute), and one that is not normally classed among the woodwinds, but is a brass instrument with a conical bore (horn). Historically when some or all of these five instruments appeared in an orchestral work, composers used them precisely to highlight the very differences in their sounds.

When the players of these five instruments gathered outside of the orchestra to create a chamber ensemble (about 1800), they were faced with a need for repertory and an approach to their very diversity. The many wind serenades of the Classical era no doubt played a role in shaping this repertory, but few ensembles had all five instruments until the latest symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. Mozart, of course, was utterly masterful in his treatment of the winds, both in expressing their individuality and in blending them effectively.

The earliest real repertory for the wind quintet was composed by Anton Reicha (who was born in the same year as Beethoven and played in the Bonn orchestra there with him when they were both teenagers). Reicha spent most of his career in Paris, where he was a highly regarded teacher (some of his students included Liszt, Berlioz, Gounod, and Franck) and a writer of theory books. But he would be far better known to the general audience if there were as many wind quintets playing his two dozen published works in the genre as there are string quartets playing his contemporary, Beethoven.

Reicha was an original composer with a lively sense of melody and color. The quintet chosen by the Berliners, the third quintet (of six) in his Opus 91 from about 1819, is a cheerfully brilliant work that suggests a thorough familiarity with Mozart’s writing for the winds. This D-major quintet offered the Berlin players plenty of opportunities for varied colors (but with classical restraint), songfulness, and a very lively (even Mozartian) finale.

Perhaps to match this sense of homage to Mozart, they chose to begin with a work by that master, though in a transcription for wind quintet from its original form, a rarely-heard work—the Fantasy in F minor, K.608—for mechanical organ. The instrument in question operated with a clockwork mechanism that controlled the sounding of pipes. The work would scarcely ever be heard except in transcription, since the instrument for which Mozart wrote it no longer exists.

Michael Hasel, the quintet’s flutist, apparently chose to make his arrangement in such a way as to minimize the acoustic diversity of the quintet and to emphasize a smooth blend of sound—a decision entirely appropriate to this piece, since the mechanical organ for which Mozart composed consisted entirely of flue stops, essentially flute-like instruments, without the reeds that so characterize the quintet itself. This smoothness of sonority was most evident in the slow movement and the slow, dotted-rhythm opening of the first movement, while the two fugues, one in the first and one in the last movement, naturally opened up the possibility for the individual players.

With the first half of the concert dedicated to music composed in the decades around 1800, the second half took a leap into the 20th century. Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, Opus 31, in which Barber’s writing emphasizes the diversity of the sonorities. Conceived for the New York Wind Quintet, Barber made a point of hearing the musicians rehearse and perform before undertaking his piece in 1956. The result offered virtuoso writing to each of the players in turn—which the Berliners carried off with great aplomb—while letting each instrument have its own moment of characteristic individuality.

Probably the greatest work ever written for the wind quintet, Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, Opus 43, of 1921 ended the formal program. By odd coincidence, it may have been Mozart’s wind writing that inspired Nielsen, who had heard that a group of his friends, who happened to comprise a wind quintet, was going to be rehearsing some by his favorite composer, and he asked to sit in simply to listen. Before long he was composing his quintet for that very ensemble, which premiered it the following year. Here the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet came into its own with the kind of outgoing and personalized performing that the Nielsen quintet demands. The oboe and bassoon (the two related instruments) sing a long phrase in parallel octaves, while the flute and clarinet toss little commentaries back and forth, and the horn, every now and then, chimes in assertively with a barbaric yawp. The constantly changing textures, colors, and articulations, superbly performed by the quintet ended the concert very satisfactorily.

The pleasure continued with two lively brief encores employing popular dance styles: a blues composed by Gunther Schuller (who, as a one-time professional horn player, knows the wind quintet medium inside out), and a charmingly sexy tango entitled (in German) “The Black Porsche,” composed by Brazilian composer Julio Medaglia, who has written a number of pieces for the ensemble. The wit and warmth of the encores provided the perfect cap for the evening.

Steven Ledbetter, a free-lance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997. He is a graduate of Pomona College and got his PhD in Musicology from New York University.

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