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alternatively Crotchet  

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Children’s Corner (1908) [15:06]
Six Épigraphes antiques (1914) [16:13]
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)/Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Forlane (pub. 1722) [2:35]
Maurice RAVEL
Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) [24:25]
Calefax Reed Quintet
rec. June 1995, Schloss Nordkirchen (Oranienburg)
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG 619 0658-2 [58:42]



Many years ago I had the honour to conduct Calefax, as part of the opening concert of Tilburg’s striking Schouwburg Theatre. It was one of those spatial events, with singers in shopping trolleys and musicians and ensembles dotted all over the building, brought together for a collective finale in and around the main stage. All I can remember about it was that, at the crucial moment, I was unable to see the big clock which was supposed to co-ordinate everyone’s entries. Relying on instinct, experience and sheer terror, I still managed to have everyone start spot on time, and nobody believed my story afterwards – c’est la vie!
 
This likeable and original ensemble have since made a name for themselves in many areas of music life in The Netherlands and elsewhere, and are recognised contemporary music experts. This attractive but, let’s be honest, not entirely essential programme of Debussy and Ravel arrangements is therefore not wholly representative of this ensemble’s work, but knowing the commercial demands on musicians these days I’m not going to criticise.
 
So, what kind of sound might you expect from a reed ensemble? Reedy? Well, yes, but the overall impression is one of well-balanced and nicely rounded music making. The lower ranges and softer sounds of bassoon, bass-clarinet and clarinet create a warm basis, which has a classically refined saxophone to glue the sound together and add colour, and the naturally sharper, more penetrating oboe to provide a solo voice. The arrangements are inventive and colourful, and there is plenty of variety in the sound. You can think of Calefax more as a kind of standard wind quintet, with horn and flute substituted by the saxophone and bass clarinet – both of which offer greater effective range and mix well with the traditional woody winds. What is clear is that those of you who like a wind quintet but can’t bear saxophone quartets and the like would be doing Calefax a great disservice by tarring them with that particular homogeneity-laden brush.
 
This elegant and refined sound is gorgeously captured by the usual high Dabringhaus und Grimm recording standards, and, placed in a pleasantly resonant church acoustic, the music and musicians are given every advantage.
 
Comparing these pieces with their piano originals would be like comparing chalk and cheddar, and there are plenty of moments where unexpected effects arise as a result of the re-instrumentation of Debussy’s expressive and impressionistic piano writing. You could swear that there was a harp chiming through the opening lines of The Snow is Dancing from Children’s Corner, and the accompanying textures of Pour remercier la pluie au matin, the last of the Six Épigraphes antiques roll through like a flock of distant birds. The Forlane from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin begins with the melody on saxophone, giving the piece a 1930s salon feel, and the little flicks of colour and exchanges between instruments are a delight. All of these arrangements have been made by members of the ensemble, and I know from experience the advantage of creating such versions from within an ensemble. It makes it considerably easier to create an effective sound – knowing the players as individuals as much as just writing for the characteristics of the instruments. Nowhere is there any sense of strain, no moments of forced or uncontrolled playing, the voicings and colours portray the music in a marvellous new light, and you can sense that the musicians are enjoying themselves as well.
 
These works may have been done to death and arranged ad nauseam, but their popularity is entirely justified, and you can discover them anew on this recording, which I have to say has grown on me with each hearing. Calefax’s effortless technique, tastefully understated individual musicianship and warmly natural phrasing and articulation make for an irresistible package – what more could you want?
 
Dominy Clements
 
           


 


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