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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dances arr. for wind quintet by Guido Schäfer
(Allegro scherzando op.46,2 [4:49]; Presto, op.46,8 [4:02]; Allegretto grazioso op.72,2 [5:43]; Allegro vivace (presto) op.72,7 [3:46])
Quartet op.96 in F, arr. for wind quintet by Guido Schäfer [25:41]
(Allegro ma non troppo [9:56]; Lento [6:12]; Molto vivace [3:53]; Vivace, ma non troppo [5:25])
Bagatelles op.47, arranged for wind quintet by Volker Grewel
(Allegretto scherzando [3:14]; Tempo di minuetto [2:37]; Allegretto scherzando [3:02]; Canon. Andante con moto [3:24]; Poco allegro [4:27])
Ma’a lot Quintet: Stephanie Winker (flute), Christian Wetzel (oboe), Ulf-Gudo Schäfer (clarinet), Volker Grewel (horn), Volker Tessmann (bassoon)
rec. 10-12 February 2005, Fürstliche Reitbahn Bad Arolsen. DDD
MDG GOLD MDG345 1356-2 [61:19]


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Now 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.

I 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.

The 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.

The 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 chamber works.

As 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.

Obviously 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 quintet!

I 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!

Gwyn Parry-Jones





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