and then a disc comes along that takes you aback with its
sheer quality. This one is a case in point; I had heard of
the Ma’a lot Quintet, but had not actually heard them play.
I also looked at the repertoire on this CD with a little restrained
scepticism, for I have heard too many botched attempts at
adapting string chamber music for winds.
was thrilled, then to find a combination of highly skilled
arrangements together with absolutely top-class – world-class,
I will happily say – playing from all five members of this
stunning group. They make a point of writing their own music
and making their own arrangements, and the two group members
represented here – clarinettist Guido Schäfer and horn player
Volker Grewel – have each done a superb job.
Slavonic Dances and Bagatelles are examples of Dvořák
in his most relaxed mood, and as such they transfer very nicely
to the wind quintet medium, with its divertimento and serenade
associations. Even so, these adaptations are exceptionally
felicitous; to take just one example, I wondered how one of
my favourite short pieces by the composer, the exquisite Slavonic
Dance op 72 no.2, marked Allegretto grazioso, would
fare. I needn’t have worried; the melody soars out in the
intensely musical phrasing and beautiful tones of Christian
Wetzel’s oboe, and later in the creamy horn sound of Volker
Grewel’s horn. Grewel employs just a hint of vibrato
for such moments, but it’s done so tastefully that not even
the most puristic of ‘cornophiles’ could possibly object.
Come to think of it, even the great Dennis Brain used a touch
of vib. from time to time, so there! Judiciously, the music
has been transposed down a tone from its original E minor
to D minor, which suits the wind instruments perfectly.
other Slavonic Dances and the delightful Bagatelles come off
just as well. But of course, one’s estimation of this disc
will ultimately depend on how one feels about the Quintet’s
version of the op.96 Quartet in F; usually known as the ‘American’,
though that title is not given here. This is a late work,
and a substantial one, as well as one of the composer’s best-known
pieces of chamber music. I have to say I was totally won over,
first again because of the sheer skill of Schäfer’s arrangement,
and secondly by the musicianship with which the Ma’a lot invest
their performance. Coming across this version without having
prior knowledge of the string quartet original, one could
easily take it for a wind piece. In fact, it was a clever
choice, because the quartet has a certain naïve charm, a simplicity
of utterance, which makes it ideal for this medium. The melodies
are often folk-like pentatonic ones, and the textures do not
have the density or complexity of some of Dvořák’s other
an arranger myself, I have a suspicion that the very beautiful
Lento was probably the hardest to adapt for this medium,
as well as the trickiest for the performers to bring off.
Again, the fine individual playing plus the exceptional sensitivity
of all members to balance problems – easily the toughest
aspect of wind quintet playing – ensure that the solemn expressivity
of the music is preserved.
something is lost when you make a transcription like this;
even the finest wind quintets cannot match the extreme subtlety
of nuance of the best string playing. That, however, doesn’t
in any way invalidate arrangements and performances as meticulous
and as faithful to the spirit of the original as these. Congratulations
to all concerned in the superb achievement that this disc
represents, very much including the engineers who have achieved
the near-impossible, a perfectly balanced recording of a wind
hope other wind ensembles will consider taking up some or
all of these fine arrangements. For example, there’s always
that knotty problem of what to do with your flute players
when you’re performing the Dvořák Wind Serenade. Well,
here’s your answer!