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"Spectral breadth yet unity." If I were to sum up this concert and this ensemble in four words, these would be the words. Hearing the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet in live concert for the first time on Sunday caused me to recalibrate my idea of the sound of a wind quintet. This brilliant group performed in the Diana Wortham Theatre as a part of the ongoing Ashville Chamber Music Series.
The ensemble was created in 1988, using principal players of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the era of Herbert von Karajan, and four of these players are still in the quintet: Michael Hasel, flute; Andreas Wittmann, oboe; Walter Seyfarth, clarinet and Fergus McWilliam, French horn. The original bassoonist, Henning Trog, was replaced by his protégé and close colleague Marian Reinhard in 2009. The more than twenty-five years of collaboration shows.
The ethereal flute, the nasal oboe, the bright clarinet, the jocular bassoon and the rich underpinning of the French horn – in most wind quintet ensembles, these five instruments toss themes back and forth in a pleasing coordination, but you always sense the tonal differences, you know that there are five players there. The Berlin Quintet makes you believe you are hearing one giant coordinated instrument capable of modifying its timbre across this broad range of tonal color, but directed by one intelligence. The unity of this ensemble meets or exceeds the unity of the very best string quartets.
The program began, logically, with Anton Reicha, the Czech-born, naturalized French composer of Beethoven's time. Reicha was the first to realize the potential of this instrumental combination, and he wrote twenty-five wind quintets. His Quintet for Winds in D, Op. 91, No. 3 consists of four movements. Noteworthy in this performance were the exceptional legato of the Adagio, the humor in the Menuetto, and the agile double-tonguing in the Allegretto.
Second on the program was a work by another Czech-born musician, but this time a tragic figure of the twentieth-century. In 1941, Pavel Haas was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he died in 1944 . His Quintet, Op. 10 dates from 1929, and shows four influences: his teacher Leoš Janáček, Igor Stravinsky, folk music and Jewish liturgical music. "Preludio" uses rhythmic patterns that (like the music of Janáček operas) reflect Bohemian speech patterns. "Preghiera" (Prayer) lies somewhere between klezmer music and service music. "Ballo eccentrico" (in which the E-flat clarinet and piccolo replace the A/B-flat clarinet and flute) tells a Moravian folk story, with an amusing accelerando and a more amusing fade-away at the end of the story. "Epilogo" show Haas' interest in jazz and Stravinsky, and the intersection of jazz and Stravinsky.
Following intermission came La cheminée du roi René (The Fireplace of King René) by Darius Milhaud, the French composer who spent his later years at Mills College in California. This suite, in seven movements, is based on the music Milhaud wrote for a 1939 film, and is yet another example of how many twentieth-century composers have written for the movies – and written very well, I might add.
Carl Nielsen's stature has risen since the mid-20th century, beginning in part due to Leonard Bernstein's advocacy, and the Danish composer's six symphonies are now frequently played. Also among Nielsen's most widely performed works is his Quintet for Winds, Op. 43, which was the final scheduled work of the day. Composed in 1922, the three-movement work is neoclassical in structure but successfully uses a modern vocabulary. The sonata allegro form of the first movement has two wonderfully contrasting themes; one featuring repeated notes and the other being softly lyrical. The Menuet features clarinet and bassoon, with a Trio using the four woodwinds, giving the French horn a rest. The final movement is a Theme and Variations wherein an English horn replaces the oboe. After the statement of the chorale theme, there are eleven variations and a restatement. This work provided a totally satisfying end to the concert.
But the nearly filled to capacity Diana Wortham Theatre demanded an encore, and a light-hearted medley of Stephen Foster tunes was the response. I agree with the Manchester Evening News, which wrote that the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet is "arguably the best ensemble of its kind in the world."