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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Anton REICHA (1770 - 1836)
Woodwind Quintets - Volume 8
Quintet in A major Op.99 No.3 [36:23]
Quintet in D major Op.99 No.4 [37:23]
The Westwood Wind Quintet
rec. Crystal Chamber Hall, Camas, Washington, 18-19; 22-23 September 2005
Experience Classicsonline

If you are already seven volumes into this cycle one imagines the purchase of the remaining discs is all but obligatory and if you are not is this the disc to mark your entry into the world of Reicha Wind Quintets? For me it was the latter scenario and I have to admit that little here encourages me to delve deeper.

The Prague-born Anton Reicha was an exact contemporary - and friend - of Beethoven and wrote this series of 24 Woodwind Quintets between 1810 and 1820. Perhaps the comparison is not wholly fair but given that by 1810 Beethoven had completed his first six symphonies, twenty six piano sonatas, eleven string quartets, pretty much all of the violin sonatas and the five piano concertos, you can see the contemporary musical environment against which these pieces should be judged. Not that these Reicha quintets lack for confidence - they are both big four movement works each lasting more than thirty five minutes.

The Producer’s Note at the end of the liner notes says, “Reicha’s stated aim with the quintets was to prove that music for woodwind instruments could be the equal of string music”. Quite why the repertoire of string chamber music is so rich and that for wind so impoverished in comparison is a simple given fact. Theories as to why this might be ultimately come down to the reality that the four instruments in a string quartet in particular provide an ideally satisfying tonal blend for the listener while at the same time demanding real compositional skill and understanding from the writer. The bald fact remains that for all his efforts Reicha is not a great enough composer to storm the barricades of the string quartet compositionally with these quintets. Great play is made in the notes of his use of harmonic, rhythmic and formal sleights but to my ear these count for less than nothing if the actual material he uses is as dull as it seems to be here. Nothing comes close to the brilliance of the late Haydn String Quartets for example - the last of which was written by 1803. Reicha seems to have a few compositional tricks in his pocket which are repeated in both quintets. The main one of these is to embellish with ever-increasing complexity the simple melodies he writes. This is not true variation form rather a showcase for the technical attributes of the players. Given that the quintet Reicha wrote for was an early 19th Century “all-stars” ensemble perhaps this is not surprising. Additionally there are many tempo and metre changes within movements all of which reminds me more of Divertimenti or Wind Serenades rather than true Quintets - at least in the sense the term would be used to describe Haydn or Beethoven chamber works of similar scale.

Which leads onto the present recording. This is a well recorded disc with as good a balance being achieved between five such very different instruments as possible. The acoustic is natural and warm. The fifteen pages of liner notes - only in English - are interesting and informative. The excerpts from Reicha’s autobiography make for entertaining reading - the term ‘bathing in reflected glory’ springs to mind. Certainly he has no qualms about mentioning his own achievements in the same sentence as those of his more illustrious counterparts mentioned earlier.

As can be implied from the fact this is Volume 8, the Westwood Wind Quintet are clearly dedicated to presenting this series of compositions to the public. I have not heard them before and certainly from their biographies and the plaudits reprinted in the booklet they appear to be a well regarded group. This would seem to be their 50th anniversary year but I have to say I was very disappointed by the playing as a whole. We are spoilt these days by playing of almost uniformly technical brilliance so it comes as something of a surprise to find some of the players to be as compromised as here. I found the tone of the quintet’s founder oboist Peter Christ to be particularly ungrateful - harsh and uneven. Likewise the flautist John Barcellona at times plays quite beautifully but elsewhere his technique is sorely challenged by Reicha’s writing. Even the general ensemble I found to be a little wayward, lacking total unanimity in the placing of chords for example. Normally I would rather not carp about such details but they occur in every movement. Taking the first movement on the disc; the very first chord does not speak as one; the flute/clarinet runs at 2:34 are not together or even, at 6:50 the clarinet stumbles around the final corner of the phrase; the solo oboe from 7:15 lacks grace tonally and musically; the flute cadenza at 7:50 really should have been retaken as should the same player’s passage at 8:20; the clarinet flourish at 10:18 finishes fractionally before the rest of the group and finally in this movement the oboe struggles to keep up around 11:55. None of which would matter in a live performance or if it were a single instance. I go into such pedantic detail for one movement because there is a compounding effect here that meant I was listening for the next fluff.

Dynamic range is an ongoing issue for a woodwind quintet - the horn will always have to underplay relative to the flute or oboe but again I have to say that I felt most of this disc was performed in a dynamically safe mid-range that after a while is simply dull. Take the phrase and its echo at 3:40 of the Finale of Op.99 No.3 - yes it’s a little quieter but why not make that a really exciting pianissimo echo! Likewise phrasing is at best predictable. This music needs real musical personalities to take it by the scruff of its neck. It is not profound music but in the right hands I could imagine it bubbling along in an undemanding and inoffensive way. Along the way there is good playing here, notably from the horn and bassoon, but too little too late to salvage my overall impression of this disc and the music it contains.

A final nail in the hammered-shut coffin lid; the producer’s note also draws attention to the issue of the quintet using “just” intonation. This is a way of dividing the twelve semitones of the standard octave that differs from the standard “equal” temperament which has been prevalent for the last 200 years. Indeed, in the history of temperament it was all but ubiquitous in Western music by the time these quintets were written so I am not sure why the Westwood Wind Quintet chooses to favour this. A fact that needs to be remembered is that whilst a piece can be performed authentically it is very hard for the average listener to listen authentically. By that I mean that we have become so accustomed to equal temperament tuning that another tuning no matter how well executed does sound “out of tune”. Certainly there is not much evidence of the “beautiful chords and harmonies” the erstwhile producer alludes to here.

Disappointing performances of music that is less important than the scale of the works would suggest.

Nick Barnard

Reviews of other volumes in this series

Volume 4 Volume 5 Volume 9 Volume 11

Comments received from Peter Christ - Crystal Records 
I normally would not respond to a critic’s review of any of our CDs, since most comments are opinion and one really cannot argue with opinion, but Nick Barnard’s review has so many erroneous statements about facts that I feel I cannot ignore it.
The most unfortunate thing about Mr. Barnard’s review is that it may discourage some music lovers from listening to these wonderful Woodwind Quintets of Anton Reicha, thus losing out on hearing one of the most creative and beautiful composers of any era. If they give Reicha a chance, they will find music that, to quote another critic, is “some of the finest music ever penned. These pieces are symphonies in miniature..each one a masterpiece.” (Ritter, Audiophile Audition) In looking back over the other reviews of this Reicha series that have appeared in Music Web, I am pleased that every other reviewer gave the Reicha series high marks, so Barnard is at odds with all of them.
I am sure that Mr. Barnard feels that by giving specific times for perceived problems he will convince everyone that he has super ears and has actually listened to the CD carefully and thus shows that he must know what he is talking about (realizing that hardly anyone will check his statements). Unfortunately some of his statements are erroneous and this is provable; it is not just opinion. For example, one particularly egregious error Barnard makes is regarding 2:34, where he claims the flute and clarinet are not together. In fact, they are exactly together; if one cannot hear this, then I suggest listening at half speed. Those runs are magical; the flute takes over from the clarinet as one instrument. I suspect that after Mr. Barnard made his first erroneous statement he was actively trying to substantiate his position by “finding” more, so he made them up as he went along. One wonders what musical training he has, that he could be so incorrect in his listening. Could his training match the cumulative 200+ years of intense professional performance that the members of this quintet have? Also, one has to wonder about the type of mentality that listens to a piece of music by “listening for the next fluff” (his words). If I were so inclined I could take any recording on the market (ANY recording) and find “fluffs” - things that are not together or slight imperfections on attacks. But this is not a way to really listen and understand music.
Mr. Barnard has some strong opinions reflected in this review. Since they are opinions they can’t be denied. However one does have the feeling that he was so turned off by the audacity of a composer to write something that might be compared to the string quartets of Haydn, that Barnard could not listen to the inherent qualities of the music, choosing instead to find anything he could to denigrate it. In fact, Reicha never said that his quintets were better than Haydn’s, Reicha actually had great respect for Haydn and states so many times in his autobiography. But this begs the issue: if one feels that Haydn quartets are the epitomy of greatness, does that mean that no other composer should ever try to write one? There go out the window all the quartets of Beethoven, as well as so many great quartets written since. Did music end with Haydn? That Mr. Barnard can say that all Reicha had were a few compositional tricks which are repeated in his quintets just shows how little Mr. Barnard really listened to these quintets, which are full of inspired writing. Instead of trying to find a misplaced note here and there in the performance he should have listened to the entirety for the music’s complexity and its warmth and vitality.
His opinion that the recording lacks excitement is especially weird. In the 50 years that the Westwood Wind Quintet has performed, the group’s excitement has been a quality that audiences and reviewers have constantly praised and mentioned, and has never before been questioned. This was recently emphasized by the editor of The Double Reed (a professional journal of the International Double Reed Society), who said in a recent printed review of this Reicha series that “what I hear most in their performance again and again is that their ensemble is wonderfully precise, clear, and always exciting. Sure, the polish is there, but never at the expense of excitement and exuberance. When they play, the music truly comes alive!” Mr. Barnard apparently was so turned off that Reicha did not sound like Haydn that he couldn’t listen with clear ears.
Mr. Barnard’s comments on just intonation are just plain ignorant. We did not pull just intonation out of the dust bins of antiquity just to impress listeners with our erudite adherence to original practices. In fact, almost all present day first-rate instrumentalists of non-fixed pitch instruments use just intonation, in varying degrees, to tune their chords, unless they are forced to play a chord with a piano’s equal temperament. I base this observation on my successful 55 years of performance as well as on many conversations with other fine musicians and printed articles. (A recent series of several articles in The Clarinet Magazine, written by one of the foremost clarinetists in the world, emphasizes the importance of playing with just intonation.) Just intonation is not just “a way of dividing the twelve semitones of the standard octave that differs from the standard ‘equal’ temperament” (Mr. Barnard’s words). It is the only way of dividing the octave that meets the laws of physics and reduces the beats that make chords untrue. Equal temperament is a compromise and that it has been used on pianos for 200 years does not make it any more accurate; it is just that people who listen primarily to pianos have gotten used to this “out of tune” feature of them. For verification of the compromises that are inherent in equal temperament, talk to any good piano tuner about what has to be done to the correct scale to make the piano come out OK in all the octaves. That Mr. Barnard cannot hear a true chord says more about him than about the performance.
That he objected to the tone quality of the group is opinion, and is very much at odds with everything we continually hear from the musicians we respect, audiences, and most reviewers. One wonders what kind of equipment he listened to this on -- was it a car radio, an iPod, or a laptop computer? I invite readers to enjoy the full sound of the group on a decent sound system.
I firmly believe, as have most of the reviewers of this series, that the Reicha woodwind quintets are very important and listenable works They are masterpieces that can stand up against anybody (even Haydn and Beethoven). I am sorry that Mr. Barnard's narrow frame of reference does not allow him to listen outside his box and hear this.
In book reviews, it is common practice for the publisher to say something about the reviewer, so that the reader can decide whether the reviewer has the right credentials to be doing a good review. I wonder why this practice is not upheld for music reviewers. Unless I just can’t find it, there does not seem to be anything about Mr. Barnard’s background on the Music Web site.
In my 55 years of professional oboe playing, I (and the Westwood Wind Quintet) fortunately have received many complimentary reviews and only a few not as complimentary, but I have never encountered a review as off-base as this one by Mr. Barnard. I have shown it to several musicians and music lovers that I respect and the general consensus is that he must be in another universe, his review is so out of sync with what others are saying.

Comment from Nick Barnard 
I applaud the passion and commitment Mr Christ has to the restoration of Anton Reicha to the pantheon of the greats.  Any series of 12 or so discs like this is a major undertaking requiring a great deal of work. 

However, 3 Facts to consider:

1)  Reicha wrote 37 String Quartets to his 24 Woodwind Quintets - so perhaps even he considered the String Quartet to be the superior form - no-where does Mr Christ challenge my question as to why there are such riches in the string music world and the wind music world is relatively impoverished (K.361 apart)
2)  My issue with Temperament is that however well it is presented to a modern audience we cannot hear authentically.  Hence "beauty" of sound is by definition subjective - I happen not to like the sound Mr Christ makes, sure that is a negatively subjective response but equally valid.  Remember, a 21st Century audience has NO perception of key as it impacted on an 18th/early 19th Century audience - see: also refer to for issues arising from the use of Just Temperament.
3) I have relistened to the now-infamous 2:34 and did just as Mr Christ suggests using a free utility called Audacity - - this allows music to be slowed down without changing pitch.  My conclusion; the instruments do not play together at that point.  My intention was not to promote how carefully I listened but instead to make it clear that this was a cumulative problem that marred my pleasure in listening to the disc. 

This correspondence is now closed


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