Anton REICHA (1770-1836)
Quintet in E flat major, Op. 88, No. 2 (1811) [24:36]
Three Pieces for cor anglais and wind quartet (1817, 1819) [18:27]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890- 1959)
Sextet for piano and winds, H 174 (1929) [15:10]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Pochod modráčků (March of the Bluebirds), JW 7/9 for piccolo and piano (1924) [2:11]
Mládí (Youth), suite for wind sextet, JW 7/10 (1924) [17:01]
Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet (Michael Hasel (flute, piccolo); Andreas Wittmann (oboe, cor anglais); Walter Seyfarth (clarinet); Fergus McWilliam (horn); Henning Trog (bassoon); with Marion Reinhard (bassoon II, Martinů); Manfred Preis (bass clarinet, Mládí); Hendrik Heilmann (piano))
rec. Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, October 2005 (Mládí), March 2009 (the rest)
BIS-CD-1802 [78:50]

The first thing one notices from listening to this CD is the exquisite quality of the individual winds in these performances and also the wonderful sound to match. If this were all the disc had going for it, it would still provide a great deal of pleasure. Fortunately, the interpretations of the various works here also merit equal praise.

Anton Reicha is a composer well known to most wind players. He composed some 25 quintets and the three additional pieces included on this disc for wind instruments. These works provide a technical challenge to the instrumentalists, as Reicha himself was a distinguished flutist and knew the capabilities of the other wind instruments well. The Quintet in E flat is a fine example of the genre and contains enough interest to keep the listener involved, especially when it is played as well as it is on this disc. The work is in four movements and shows off the virtuosity of the performers well. The bassoon in the first movement is especially noteworthy and there is a virtuosic horn passage starting at 6:06 that is then followed by the bassoon and the other winds. The second movement, a minuet, has a catchy theme and has several contrasting trios. The slow movement is like song that features the oboe as soloist and again with contrasting faster sections; the main theme returns the last time on the horn. The quintet ends with a sprightly rondo with solos by the various winds. The instruments sound as if they were right in the listener’s room. This is true throughout the disc, which is closely recorded, but in no way claustrophobic.

Reicha’s Three Pieces are independent of each other. The first was composed in 1817 and the other two in 1819. The English horn replaces the oboe in all of them. While the English horn is the featured instrument in all three, the flute also has an important soloistic role in the first two and the horn in the D minor piece. As Michael Hasel points out in his note to the CD, the first piece is a tiny and lyrical “opera scena” with the oboe often in dialogue with the flute; the second piece has march-like patterns, and the third is a somewhat somber adagio. In some ways, I find these pieces more attractive than the earlier Quintet. Again the performances leave nothing to be desired.

It is quite a switch to Martinů, from the nineteenth-century drawing room to the twentieth-century salon. Martinů was living in Paris at the time he composed this Sextet and he was absorbing the styles prevalent there at the time, including Stravinskian neo-classicism and jazz. The work is very light-hearted, something of a divertissement. Indeed the third and fourth movements of the five-movement work are titled Scherzo (I. Divertimento) and Blues (II. Divertimento). With its chameleon character and elements of jazz it reminds me of some of Poulenc’s music. The Sextet is scored, rather unusually, without horn, but with an additional bassoon. The third movement Scherzo, though, is solely for flute and piano. The fourth movement not only evokes the blues, but also turns into ragtime before it ends. The second movement Adagio is more pensive and is a good contrast to the others. Even with all the influences, the work is unmistakably Martinů’s. The Berliners capture the effervescence of the music as well as could be imagined.

The real meat of the program, however, is Janáček’s Mládí, one of the twentieth-century’s masterpieces for winds. The scoring is for flute (and piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, horn and bassoon. It is sufficiently well known, so I won’t go into detail about the individual movements. Preceding it on the disc is a tiny children’s march on which Janáček based the third movement of the sextet. The work’s title has been translated variously as the March of the Bluebirds (as on this CD), Blue Tits (probably more accurate, as this is a common European bird — and Janáček knew his natural history well), or even Blue Boys. The word modraček in Czech means “blue-breast” or “blue-coat”. At any rate, the lively march for piccolo and piano is a nice appetizer for the main work. The instrumentation of the march is an alternate to the original for piccolo, snare drum and glockenspiel. There is a recording on Supraphon, in the “Unknown Janáček” series of the original instrumentation, and the percussion adds a lot of color.

Mládí receives an absolutely gorgeous performance here. It is not only beautifully played but well characterized, too. Some may miss the tangy woodwinds and fruity horn that a native Czech group provides. A fine example of that is an account by the Prague Wind Quintet and Petr čáp (bass clarinet) on Supraphon that accompanies the String Quartets with the Talich Quartet, and is a mandatory acquisition for Janáček fans. Nonetheless, I would not want to be without this new version by the Berliners. It is in every way superb. One technical note: I have noticed recently that recordings of Janáček’s music now contain catalogue numbers. “JW” stands for “Janáček Works” and the numbers presumably are taken from the authoritative Janáček’s Works: A Catalogue of the Music and Writings of LeoŠ Janáček by Nigel Simeone, John Tyrell and Alena Nemcová, published by Oxford University Press in 1997.

For a good sampling of Czech wind music this new BIS CD would be hard to beat, as the selection of works is varied and the performances and recordings are outstanding.

Leslie Wright

An outstanding selection of Czech works for winds.