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Serenades for Winds – I Solisti del Vento
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Serenade in D minor, op.44 (1878)
Flor ALPAERTS (1876-1954)

Evening Music (1915)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Suite in Bb major op.4 (1883)
I Solisti del Vento/Etieneene Siebens and Ivo Hadermann
Recorded at Blauwe Saal, de Singel, Antwerp, Belgium, 28th-30th October, 2003
ETCETERA KTC 4001 [56:37]

I Solisti del Vento (‘The Wind Soloists’) is a talented Belgian wind ensemble, made up of players from some of the country’s leading orchestras. The conductor, Etienne Siebens, is also Belgium-based, and shares the baton for this recording with Ivo Hadermann, who plays horn in the Dvořák and Strauss works, but takes over as conductor in the Alpaerts, which is for woodwinds only.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this recording, despite one major reservation, which I will deal with later on. The playing is of a very high standard, and the woodwinds achieve an exceptionally smooth blend. In fact, the sound of the reed instruments will be a little too smooth for some tastes, though, in combination with near flawless intonation, this makes for an exceptionally well integrated ensemble.

The programme commences with a lively, even sprightly, version of Dvořák’s ever-green Serenade in D minor. The swaying second movement – based on the Czech dances Sousedska and Furiant – is taken about as fast as I’ve ever heard it. I confess I felt it lost a little of its charm and elegance, sensitively though the musicians shape their phrases. However, the slow movement brings some magically expressive playing, and the finale has an irresistible momentum.

This little masterpiece is scored for the unusual combination of pairs of oboes, clarinets and bassoons, three horns, ‘cello and double bass, with an ‘ad lib’ contrabassoon part. I’m glad to report that the contra is very much in evidence, for its organ-like depths contribute greatly to the sound.

The Alpaerts Evening Music is a pleasant enough work consisting of two contrasted serenades, one slow and rather melancholy, the other scherzo-like. My expectations were aroused by the interesting harmonic twists of the opening bars, but the music doesn’t quite live up to their promise. It has a wilful, capricious feeling that may appeal to some listeners – I found it ultimately frustrating and inconsequential.

The Strauss Suite in Bb is one of the composer’s earliest characteristic works. Given his age at the time of composition – late teens - it is a superbly crafted and highly impressive work; this is no mere apprentice piece, but a colourful, witty and entertaining piece, with some very beautiful moments. Listening to it, you can well believe that Don Juan was just around the corner, and it is fascinating to detect the influences on the young composer – principally, as you might imagine, Brahms and Wagner, but also Schumann, Mendelssohn and others.

I Solisti del Vento play superbly; but now I come to the reservation mentioned above, and it concerns the horn playing in the Suite. There are four horns, and the young Strauss often gives them heroic unison passages of the sort found in his mature tone poems. Now four horns can make one heck of a noise, and the players here have been allowed to ‘go for it’ in a completely unbridled way. The result is a bizarre unbalancing of the textures in many places, with either important material in other parts blasted to kingdom come, or relatively unimportant lines in the horn parts disproportionately prominent. Some of this is the fault of the inexperienced composer; but it is surely the job of a conductor to bring sympathy and experience to bear upon such misjudgements. Neither is it the fault of the players – elsewhere, they show they can play with real, unobtrusive pianissimo. No, I fear that this grouse lands firmly on the doorstep of M.Siebens, who otherwise directs with considerable flair. Advice to all conductors: make sure your horn players know their place, otherwise they’ll take over!

The final fugue, which is a splendid contrapuntal contrivance, develops a joyous impetus, and the final chord benefits greatly from that contrabassoon again. But hold on; our contra player plays his very lowest Bb, (i.e. the one that is the lowest note but one on most pianos). Checking the score, we find that Strauss has not written that note, but the one an octave above. So a mild and indulgent slap on the wrist for the conductor.

Putting aside these various gripes, this is in essence a very fine issue, and the playing of this Belgian ensemble compares well with, for example, that of London Winds under Collins, probably the strongest current version of the Strauss.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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