This triple CD release represents a collaboration between distinguished flautist Emmanuel Pahud and four of the finest wind players on the international stage. They are known as Les Vents Français and are joined here by leading pianist Éric Le Sage.
In 2014 I reviewed
the first release by Les Vents Français -
a double set with Music for Wind Quintet
on disc one and 20th Century Wind Quintets
on the second. It was a splendid album quite beautifully played and recorded.
A mix of well known and rare repertoire the set Winds and Piano
is an enthralling collection of music from eight different composers: four French, three Austro-German and one Russian. Spanning a hundred and fifty years the earliest work is Mozart’s Quintet, K452 of 1784 and most recent the Poulenc Sextet of 1932.
The first CD contains four works from French composers: Francis Poulenc, Louise Farrenc, Albert Roussel and André Caplet. Certainly the finest work and the best known here is Poulenc’s Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Written in 1932 and revised in 1939 the colourful three movement score is a highly attractive, elegant work with upbeat and rambunctious outer movements flanking a middle Andantino movement which is predominantly lyrical and rather calming. A new work to me is Farrenc’s three movement Sextet for piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn in C minor. Composed in 1852 according to the booklet notes Farrenc’s work is one of the earliest examples of a piano and wind quintet. It is likely that Farrenc modelled her score on the Mozart and Beethoven quintets for piano and winds with the addition of a flute part. Hers is a most agreeable score and elegantly constructed with a lengthy and forthright opening movement but Farrenc’s writing does seem rather lacking in anything really memorable. Roussel’s Divertissement, a quintet for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano, Op. 6, is from 1906 written whilst he was still a student of Vincent d’Indy. Designed in Rondo form the quintet is a splendid single movement containing a number of contrasting ideas that work wonderfully well. Caplet is known more for his transcriptions and orchestrations of Debussy’ s music rather than for his own compositions. Caplet’s four movement Quintet for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and piano was written in 1898 when only nineteen and still a student. Thought lost for a number of years the score resurfaced in the late 1930s. Highly agreeable Caplet’s Quintet is a work of real substance. Especially memorable is the deeply melancholic Adagio followed by a jaunty, rather witty Scherzo.
The second CD contains two Austro-German masterworks of the classical period by Mozart and Beethoven. First Mozart’s Quintet in E flat major, K.452 composed in 1784 and scored for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano. Clearly overjoyed with it Mozart wrote “I consider it the best work I have ever written …” This is such insightful playing of poise and sensitivity with the opening movement feeling especially enchanting. Richly coloured the central Larghetto has a marvellous interplay between piano and winds with the Finale: Allegretto joyous and deliciously melodic. From 1796 Beethoven’s Quintet in E flat major, Op. 16 scored for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano owes Mozart a debt of gratitude. Beethoven certainly knew Mozart’s Quintet, K.452 and used it as a model with regard to its identical scoring, key and layout. Unlike the Mozart score Beethoven has the piano and winds in opposition rather in the manner of a concerto. With accomplished playing combining vivacity, warmth and refinement I’m especially captivated by the lengthy opening movement with the piano part taking centre-stage.
The third disc of the set contains two late nineteenth-century works for piano and winds. A real find is Ludwig Thuille’s Sextet for piano and wind quintet in B flat major, Op. 6. Scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano - a four movement work written in 1888. This irresistible and highly melodic work has a most satisfying instrumental balance. The opening Allegro moderato feels wistful and the Larghetto is gloriously undemanding and mellow in mood. Elegant and melodic the Gavotte is light on its feet and I’m enthused by the fleet, spirited playing of the attractive Finale: Vivace. From 1876 Rimsky-Korsakov’s Quintet in B flat major scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and piano is one of two works the composer submitted for a Russian Chamber Music Society competition. The composer’s Sextet gained a mention by the judges but this three movement Quintet for piano and winds was disregarded. Played with commitment and immediacy this wonderful score, full of vivid colours is displayed at its finest. The playing of the middle movement is striking. Its calm and relaxing mood contrasts with a passionately felt central fugal section. A highlight of the whole set is the memorable Rondo: Finale: uplifting, mischievous and carefree.
The engineers have provided crystal clear sound that superbly captures that often difficult balance between winds and piano. My minor grumble is that two of the discs at a meagre 52 and 55 minutes could have easily accommodated additional works, however, as the standard of performance is so excellent this is easy to overlook. Elevated accomplishment, steadfast unity and immaculate preparation are core features of the playing. The superbly blended piano of Éric Le Sage is seamlessly incorporated into the group. For admirers of chamber music this release makes indispensable listening.
Fingers crossed that Les Vents Français will continue to record more of this fascinating repertoire. As the players will know there is a wealth of excellent works for wind ensemble with or without piano accompaniment most notably from the pens of Nielsen, Rubinstein, Onslow, Roussel, Magnard, Françaix and d’Indy as well as more challenging works by Ligeti, Berio, Carter, Rihm and Birtwistle. In addition ensembles often seem to forget that Britain too has a tradition of writing music for winds. Springing to mind are Arnold’s Wind Quintet and Three Shanties, Holst's Wind Quintet, Jacob's Sextet for Piano and Winds and the Mathias Wind Quintet. If we claim Grainger as British there is his short Walking Tune for Wind Quintet and not forgetting McCabe’s thorny Concerto for Piano and Wind Quintet.