Music for Winds György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Sechs Bagatellen (1953) [11:50] Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Summer Music, Op. 31 (1955-56) [11:46] Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Quintet, Op. 43, FS 100 (1922) [26:00] Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Kleine Kammermusik, Op. 24, No. 2 (1922) [13:31] Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Mládí, JW VII/10 (1924) [17:03]
London Winds (Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo); Gareth Hulse (oboe, cor anglais); Michael Collins (clarinet); Robin O’Neill (bassoon); Richard Watkins (horn); Peter Sparks (bass clarinet) (Janáček))
rec. Church of St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London, 28-29 May 2015 CHANDOS CHAN10876 [80:13]
This very full CD offers over 80 minutes of arguably the finest music for wind quintet—sextet in the case of Janáček—of the past century. I have often thought it would be nice for programmes containing the quintets of the composers above to include the Janáček rather than a slighter work, such as the Françaix Wind Quintet No. 1, entertaining though it may be. The London Winds are a group of virtuosi who have been performing together since 1988 without a change in personnel and in one case, the Ligeti, my comparison is with their earlier version of 1995 for Sony’s Ligeti Edition.
Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles are among the composer’s most often heard works and for good reason. They show the influence of Bartók for sure, but also lead the way to his later scores. One of their main elements is humor and it is here where the London Winds excel over other groups. A good example is the long pause in the first movement before the last note. It seems to go on forever before that final note. Comparing their two recordings, I found little difference in their approach to the piece and the tempos they adopt are pretty consistent, too. The newer version is ever so slightly more refined and warmer. This is due in some degree to the sound of the new recording, where the balance among the instruments could not be improved upon. One can really appreciate the lower instruments here, and in the other works on this disc, more than in the older recording. There is a realism where the instruments sound as if they were performing in one’s own private space. You could argue that the brighter and slightly harsher earlier account makes the work seem more rustic or folkish, but there is very little in it. The London Winds, in either case, are miles ahead of the competition. However, if you already have their earlier recording as part of the Ligeti Edition, you may not want to acquire the new one.
After the Ligeti, Barber’s Summer Music comes like a balm of warmth and radiance. It is a very well constructed piece that lingers long in the memory for its melodiousness and color. There have been any number of fine recordings, but I have always enjoyed that with the Ensemble Wien-Berlin on Sony, which also contains the Ligeti Bagatelles. While their Summer Music is still a viable account, this new one by the London Winds is even better. They play with more inflection and temperament. I especially admire Robin O’Neill’s bassoon work here and there is no clicking of the keys that one notices with the Vienna-Berlin bassoon. The fast passages are also clearer in the new recording and, as with virtually everything on the disc, there is greater presence in the sound.
One could claim that the biggest, most important work on the disc is the Nielsen Quintet. It is clearly the longest, but each piece has a significance way beyond its length. Nielsen’s Quintet has received a good number of first-class recordings, including the Bergen Wind Quintet (BIS) and the New London Chamber Ensemble (Meridian), the latter which I reviewed here. I can state unreservedly that the London Winds hold their own against the competition. It really is a case of swings and roundabouts when it comes to preferring one version to the other, especially in the case of the New London group. The London Winds may be a bit mellower in the first movement and perkier in the second, but the New London’s dramatic dissonance in the third movement is really impressive. Both groups characterize the theme and variations equally well, with outstanding individual solos in each case. The fifth variation’s clarinet solo always reminds me of the cat in Peter and the Wolf and I’ve often wondered if Prokofiev was familiar with this quintet.
Hindemith’s delightful Kleine Kammermusik comes next and belongs to the neo-Baroque period of his seven Kammermusiken, which frequently have been regarded as twentieth-century equivalents to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The Kleine Kammermusik differs from the others that are scored for chamber orchestra with solo instruments, as it is a wind quintet. It shares its opus number with the first of the concertos scored for twelve solo instruments. Most recordings of the Kammermusiken do not include the quintet, but Riccardo Chailly’s with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca) does and that recording is the one to beat. I’ve heard a number of versions of the work over the years, but until now none have eclipsed Chailly’s. The London Winds really challenge their supremacy and, though I find Chailly’s equal in capturing the spirit of the work, this version has the better instrumental balance and sound. I still treasure the earlier account, especially as it fits in so well in the Kammermusik programme.
The disc concludes as it began with the folk influence of Eastern Europe. While Ligeti’s Bagatelles come from the earlier part of his career, Janáček’s Mládí (Youth) is representative of that flowering late in the composer’s life. As Paul Griffiths notes in the CD booklet, Janáček added the bass clarinet to the standard wind quintet “to bolster the bass and allow more homogeneity of ensemble sound.” There was a time when Czech musicians had a proprietary claim on Janáček’s music, but in recent years his works have become staples in the international arena. Mládí is among his most popular works and there have been numerous recordings of this sextet by non-Czech musicians. Nonetheless, when one turns to an authentic, Czech account, such as that by the Prague Wind Quintet (Supraphon), there is a noticeable difference in the timbre of the instruments. The woodwinds have a certain inimitable tang and the hornist plays with a fruity tone and judicious vibrato. Some of this is due no doubt to the instruments themselves, but the style of playing also has much to do with it. That being said, for a non-Czech version this account by the London Winds has everything going for it in terms of virtuosity and character. Again the balance among the instruments is ideal. The sound does not cheat the lower register and brings out details in the bassoon and bass clarinet not always apparent on other recordings.
To sum up, this CD can serve as an exemplar in terms of the selections, the superb performances, and the outstanding recording. In addition, Paul Griffiths’ erudite and detailed notes are like icing on the cake.