see end of review for disc contents
The Sabine Meyer Wind Ensemble: Sabine Meyer (clarinet on all tracks) Reiner Wehle (clarinet and basset horn), Karl-Theo Adler (basset horn), Albrecht Meyer, Thomas Indermühle and Diethelm Jonas (oboes), Dag Jensen, Georg Klütsch and Sergio Azzolini (bassoons), Bruno Schneider, Nikolaus Frisch, Klaus Frisch, Dietmar Ulrich, Richard Schneider and Charly Fessler (horns), Klaus Lohrer and Christoph Schmidt (double bassoons) and Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (cello).
WARNER CLASSICS 4312672 [7 CDs: 402:47]
The term Harmoniemusik refers to a form of music that became highly popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and which almost exclusively involved wind ensembles. Many composers wrote for these ensembles and others arranged music for them that had been originally composed for other groups.
The first offering on this set is of two arrangements of Beethoven symphonies one by Anon and the other by Joan Barcons. In 1816 these two symphonies appeared in no fewer than six arrangements each for various combinations of instrument. The one for the 7th is a contemporary one while Sabine Meyer’s ensemble commissioned the one of the 8th since the original for wind ensemble had been lost. I find the arrangements difficult to listen to in their entirety since the works are so well known that to hear them in this format seems too contrived. They cannot be enjoyed in the same way as works that have been specifically created for such an ensemble; strangely they also seem over-long when heard in this way. However, if such things do not concern you then there is no doubt that there is much enjoyment to be had from them since the music itself is wonderful and the playing is exemplary. It may be that for me an extract might work better. Despite the fact that I am normally totally opposed to tearing bleeding chunks of compositions out of context, in these cases the effect may seem less contrived if a single movement were presented rather than the entire symphony. The longer they went on the more contrived they appeared; a case of ‘enough is as good as a feast’ or ‘less is more’ perhaps.
Many years ago I remember a friend challenging me to record extracts from works that he’d try to identify. I included something by Krommer. When he couldn’t fathom who the composer was and I told him he was convinced I’d made the name up. I had become familiar with Krommer and many of his Bohemian compatriots when I lived in Prague in the 1970s where his name remained well known and greatly respected. There he was known variously as František Vincenc Krommer, Krommer Kramař or Kramař Krommer. He was born in 1759 in the small Bohemian town of Kamenice u Jihlavy that even in 2009 had a population of only 1800. Understandably it is proud of its famous son. The four wind octets presented on the second CD are delightful and perfectly formed little gems. They take full advantage of the instruments: clarinet, oboe, horn, bassoon and double bassoon. They bubble along with energy and invention and make you want to listen to them again and again. Listen to the short last movement of the op.71 Octet entitled ‘La Chasse’ and note how effectively Krommer evokes the hunt. It was fashionable in Bohemia to write ‘music for hunting’ and many composers did so with Krommer’s efforts being particularly successful. Octets are the perfect vehicle for winds and these short works are exceptionally enjoyable. Small wonder that this composer was considered a serious rival to Beethoven. Small wonder also to learn that Beethoven didn’t think much to his music which seems to smack a little of sour grapes, not that he had anything to worry about.
Another genre that was prevalent in the 18th century was the arranging of successful stage works for various groups of instruments as soon as their success on stage had been established. The third CD is of an arrangement of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) which until quite recently had been attributed by Beethoven’s contemporary Franz Joseph Rosniack but is now considered to have been made by Mozart himself. Rosniack’s name will most probably now sink entirely into the dustbin of history. That he was ever linked to an arrangement that is probably by no less a figure than Mozart is in itself quite a tribute to his memory. Following the overture there are 16 arias from the opera arranged for nine instruments, two each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoon plus double bassoon. The opera was commissioned by Emperor Joseph II from the 26 year old composer in 1782. Many will remember that in the film Amadeus the cloth-eared Emperor says it “has too many notes; cut a few and it will be perfect”. In fact there are hardly any instances where that can be said to be true as in almost all cases there are neither too many nor too few. That said this distillation of an opera that takes two CDs to an arrangement of the main tunes that lasts little over an hour certainly makes you concentrate. Mozart had an uncanny ability to produce memorable tunes that have enthralled listeners for over 230 years. Lovers of the opera have the opportunity to enjoy it all over again in this form. It is both charming and rich in beautiful music that never fails to involve the listener.
The fourth CD in this set is of Mozart’s Serenade No.10 in B flat KV361 (370a) “Grand Partita” scored for 13 wind instruments. As the sleeve-note reminds us the opening of the Adagio has Salieri in the film Amadeus say “It was as if I had heard the voice of God”. While the quote may have been invented the sentiment is one that can easily be imagined could have been felt by Salieri such is the beauty of the music and the effortless ease with which Mozart came to write such music; it simply poured out of him. It is the extra ingredient in Mozart’s music that makes it unique; there is such incredible invention in its structure and every tune, major or subsidiary is captivating. Listen to some of Salieri’s compositions alongside Mozart’s and it’s easy to understand Salieri’s frustration that he was born at the same time as this singular genius. Listening to the Adagio afresh with Salieri’s comment in mind I could fully understand how he might have felt it when a tune begun by one instrument is taken up and completed by another in a kind of musical relay. If when one section finishes your mind thinks “follow that then!” Mozart obliges and so one’s gob is continually smacked.
CD5 begins with music from a completely different time with Dvořák’s Serenade in D minor. In fact he captures the essence of the general style of music that distinguishes harmoniemusik from other forms, as was his intention. Scored for nine instruments it is a wonderfully evocative work of great beauty that could only have come from Bohemia the birthplace of music for wind instruments. Supremely melodious and full of colour it weaves its irresistible charm for the whole of its 25 minute length.
Josef Mysliveček was another of those composers my aforementioned friend believed I had made up when I presented him with an extract of his music to try to identify. Anyone who believes they can do that irrespective is fooling himself since no-one will ever know every composer there is. I am continually amazed at the number I come across for the first time. As with Krommer Mysliveček became known to me when I lived in Prague and was taken under the wing of a friendly and hugely knowledgeable woman in a record shop - you don’t find that often. She guided me in my discovery of the huge wealth of composers from that part of Europe who lived and worked during the highly productive period of the 18th century. With a list of compositions including 26 operas - bringing more of them into production than anyone other composer in Europe - 55 symphonies and a host of works for other instruments Mysliveček was one of the most prolific and gifted of 18th century composers. He is credited with being the first to have published a string quintet with two violas as well as being a pioneer in the composition of music for wind ensembles. Add to these achievements the fact that he was for several years a really good and close friend of the Mozarts, father and son and a considerable influence on Wolfgang who used many of Mysliveček’s themes in works of his own and one can see that this composer was a major figure in 18th century musical life. It is therefore all the more surprising that he has been so unjustly ignored in Western Europe and America up until now. It is to be hoped that he is beginning to be recognised for his important contribution to the musical legacy of his century. His three octets are particularly fine examples of his wind ensemble compositions, full of interest with brightly joyful tunes that are memorable, elegant and melodically refined.
CD 6 takes us back to Mozart for his last two composed wind serenades. The opening of number 11 in E flat K375 is immediately recognisable for it is so well known and puts a smile on your face in the same way that a friend who has returned after an absence might do. Subjecting the opening theme to variations in Mozart’s inimitable style makes the whole experience of the opening Allegro maestoso wonderfully satisfying. The following six movements are equally enthralling, the last an absolute delight. The entire work is an object lesson in what a wind serenade should be. Mozart’s Serenade No.12 is no less remarkable in form or content though it is much darker in mood than its predecessor.
It is no surprise that Beethoven was attracted to the wind ensemble genre and the three examples presented here show his genius which is on display in typically brilliant form. They prove how well he grasped the mechanics of wind band composition. In fact Beethoven takes this form of composition to a completely new level and makes it his own with a symphonic feel to the works that belies the fact that there are only nine instruments involved. Big in sound and in ideas there is a rich quality in the music that Beethoven always managed to incorporate into everything he wrote. The opening Allegro of his Octet in E flat sets the scene in a wonderfully melodic movement. His facility in that direction is maintained throughout the entire work which weaves the serious with the merry. The Rondino in E flat may be brief at six minutes but it is no less inventive and is full of brilliance with some lovely passages for clarinet and for horn.
The final work on this disc and in this set is his Septet in E flat op.20 heard here in an arrangement for nonet by yet another of my Bohemian favourites, Jiří Družecký (1745-1819). As with the previous work this abounds in wonderful tunes brimming with invention. The second movement Adagio cantabile is a particular favourite with its slightly sad and wistful main theme. Looking back to the first disc of the set these works that Beethoven wrote specifically for wind ensemble reconfirm my opinion of the arranging of the two symphonies. Yes, they are interesting with some moments that are very appealing but as a whole such pieces are nowhere near as convincing as these. It is not just a question of length, the two octets each being of almost the same duration as the arrangement of the eighth symphony but that with Beethoven everything has a reason. The times when things don’t quite work are rare indeed whilst the arrangements though charming have a false ring to them that Beethoven’s music never does; if it’d worked he’d have written it.
To summarise: this set is superb in that it highlights a genre of music that was highly successful in its day and one that produced some really beautiful music. The range of composers for it was considerable as the selection presented on these discs indicates. The set also shows the supreme dexterity with which these marvellous musicians are blessed. The members of the Sabine Meyer Wind Ensemble were consistent over the period these discs were first recorded. This continuity is evident in a group whose enthusiasm and love for the music is demonstrated in spades resulting in a thoroughly exciting and rewarding set of great music played by a group at the very top of its game.
I have only one small gripe which is that such a set deserves a booklet with some background to the group, to the music and to its composers complete with a short essay on the Harmoniemusik genre; the few lines on the individual disc covers are inadequate.
CD 1 [54:12
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.7 in A op.92 (arr. for wind ensemble by Anon.) [31:44]
Symphony No.8 in F op.93 (arr. for wind ensemble by Joan Barcons) [22:16]
rec. 31 July-3 August 1989, Pfarrkirche Pleis, Vella (Switzerland)
CD 2 [69:17]
Franz Vincenz KROMMER (1759-1831)
Octet in C op.76 [17:24], Octet in E flat op.71 [16:20], Octet in F op.57 [18:41], Octet in B flat op.78 [16:30]
rec. 14-16 September 1990, Evangelical Church, Reutlingen-Gönningen, Germany
CD 3 [60:36]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) arr. for wind ensemble att. Mozart [60:36]
rec. 22-24 February 1990, St. Nicholas Church, Hannover, Germany
CD 4 [47:11]
Serenade No.10 in B flat K361 (370a) “Grand Partita” for 13 wind instruments [47:11]
rec. 12-15 July 1991, Pfarrkirche Pleis, Vella (Switzerland)
CD 5 [60:26]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Serenade in D minor op.44 [24:54]
Josef MYSLIVE ČEK (1737-1781)
Wind Octets 1-3
Octet No.1 in E flat [16:08], Octet No.2 in E flat [10:14], Octet in B flat [8:46]
rec. 3-5 September 1994, Salle de Musique, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
CD 6 [47:42]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Serenade No.11 in E flat K375 [24:22], Serenade No.12 in C minor K388 (384a) [23:09]
rec. 11-13 October 1996, Abbey Road Studio No.1, London, UK
CD 7 [63:23]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Octet in E flat op.103a [19:32], Rondino in E flat [6:11], Septet in E flat op.20 (arr. for wind nonet by Jiří Družecký) [19:12]
rec. 11-13 October 1996, Abbey Road Studio No.1, London, UK
A thoroughly exciting and rewarding set of great music played by a group at the very top of its game.
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