We don’t hear enough from wind quintets in day-to-day chamber concert repertory, more’s the pity. The combination has found special favor among Eastern European and French composers; cool timbres and lithe textures make for bracing programs and challenges of voicing and structure that yield exciting results. If a single wind quintet brings listening pleasure on a hot, breezy spring afternoon, might a double wind quintet provide twice the refreshment?
We pondered this esoteric point listening to Kammerwerke, such a double wind quintet, put through its paces by founder and director Alan Pearlmutter in the relatively pleasant Victorian stucco-and-pine gothic nave of Newtonville’s Evangelical Baptist Church on Sunday
The program’s three works evolved in relative atmospheric weight from light to moderate to substantial: Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite From Moscow Cheryomushki (1960), Joachim Raff’s Sinfonietta (1873), and Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 (A Major, Op. 16, 1860).
Well-integrated balance was achieved by pairing instruments in two rows: flutes, oboes, and clarinets up front (seconds doubling as needed), horns and bassoons behind. Respective instrumentalists were Carol Epple and Wendy Vignaux; Sandra Ayres and Carol Louik; Linda Poland and Jenny Connors; Justin Stanley and Sabrina Hepburn; Frank Casados and Lauren Landry.
The Suite was written for a light operetta, whose Moscow premiere coincided with a regime change in Soviet government (from Khrushchev to Brezhnev) that brought glimmers of light – and sarcastic levity — to Muscovites ground down for decades beneath Stalinist jackboots. Fairground hurdy-gurdy themes blare blithely (think Petrouchka), buffo characters dance gay polkas and mock quasi-military stereotypes in stiff parade mufti (think Lieutenant Kije), and a spirit of relief pervades Shostakovich’s contemporaneous works (eg, String Quartet #6. The ditsy, eclectic atmosphere even recalls Moss Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, its jumbled cast poking jibes at government corruption and capitalist excess. Though paired cameos were spotted throughout for haunting clarinets, jolly flutes, and mournful muted horns, the expansive ensemble itself (may the people rule!) carried the day under Pearlmutter’s energetic baton.
Raff’s piece, freely adaptive in content as was the norm for this prolific Swiss, encompassed the traditional four symphonic movements. The opening ‘sonata allegro’ achieved drama and tension through hymn-like chorales from the back row, and a late fughetto featuring the horns. Then followed a jovial tarantella reminiscent of Rimsky’s Capriccio Italien, a pretty larghetto with languid melodies for Ayres and Epple, and a bristling vivace that exalts treble glissandi. The performance was characterized by delicacy of articulation and passionate expression. Quieter passages were accompanied from without by the rush of insistent zephyrs and starlings squalling in the eaves.
In the second of his two youthful serenades Brahms omitted violins, so Tony Turrill’s clean-cut adaptation often leaves the flutes tacet, and Vignaux seldom plays piccolo, except for dazzling highlights in the scherzo and rondo. The uncluttered allegro—measured, arch, elegant, yet engaging—never went logy, even in the heat, as Brahms exercised and stretched rhythmic and harmonic boundaries. The elusive, speedy scherzo doubled staccato octaves over orotund bass from the back row. An easy legato adagio in waltz-time featured handsome solos for Poland and Casados. Despite intonation issues in the brilliant rondo, the serenade and concert came to a rousing conclusion.
Pearlmutter remarks, “The double wind quintet, rather rare in America, is apparently more prevalent in England. The significant repertoire includes original compositions for this particular combination, as well as arrangements of standard literature. The sound of ten winds resonates with a full panorama of orchestral color, depth, and brilliance. What’s especially valuable about this is that seasoned wind players, including recent local conservatory graduates who’ve played with us, are totally unfamiliar with this literature.” Kammerwerke, now specializing in this under-exposed format, is providing pleasing and instructive experiences for both sides of the podium.