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Music for Winds
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Sechs Bagatellen (1953) [11:50)
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Summer Music, op.31 [11:46]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Quintet, op.43, FS100 [26:00]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Kleine Kammermusik, op.24 no.2 (1922) [13:31]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Mládí (Youth), JW VII/10 (1924)
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))
rec. Church of St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London, 28-29 May 2015
CHANDOS CHAN10876 [80:13]

This is a wonderful programme of five twentieth century wind masterpieces - four quintets and a sextet. Ligeti’s early Bagatelles display his feral imagination and quirky sense of humour. They also indicate his great indebtedness to the music of Bartók – not surprising in a young Hungarian composer of this vintage but made explicit in the deeply felt third movement, titled ‘Béla Bartók in Memoriam’. London Winds give a witty performance of these tiny pieces, suitably wild and woolly in the hectic Presto ruvido based on the rhythms of Eastern European folk music.

The remaining pieces receive equally convincing and brilliant treatment from this fine ensemble, all of whose members are prominent soloists on their respective instruments. The irresistible Nielsen Quintet of 1922 thus fits the bill perfectly, as its whole approach is based on the contrasting characters of the five instruments. Indeed, not only the instruments’ characters, but also those of their players; the piece was written con amore for his close friends in the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, and explores their personalities and their relationships; the hilarious Variation 5 in the finale, for example, portrays a disagreement between the clarinettist and bassoonist – the latter, naturally, getting the last word.

It’s amazing to think that this quintet was written immediately after the turbulent Fifth Symphony – no doubt the composer needed to work on something less emotionally taxing, though one shouldn’t underestimate the beauty and originality of this work, one of the finest ever composed for the medium.

That description applies equally to Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik, composed in the same year as the Nielsen, yet quite different in its writing for the ensemble. Hindemith creates gritty textures, often achieved by placing all the instruments low in their registers and pitched close together. Probably most memorable is the third movement, marked ‘Ruhig und einfach’ (Peaceful and Simple), with its central night march (possibly inspired by Debussy’s ‘Fętes’?) flanked by mournfully expressive passages for the whole ensemble. London Winds realise the dark colours of this piece superbly, the bassoon playing of Robin O’Neill quite outstanding in his many solos. The only blemish is, sad to report, the final chord of the finale, which is simply out of tune, with the third of the E minor chord slightly but decisively sharp. I hasten to add that the intonation of the group is generally exemplary.

The Samuel Barber Summer Music on track 7 is less often heard than the Nielsen or Hindemith, in part perhaps because it is not quite so felicitously written for the wind instruments. However, it is a fascinating piece, in which languid, ‘bluesy’ music alternates with hypnotic dance rhythms.

For the final work, Janáček’s Mládí, the group is expanded by the addition of Peter Sparks’ bass clarinet. This was an inspired choice by the composer, for this instrument provides a truly resonant bass, thereby allowing the bassoon to feature in its plaintive tenor register. ‘Mládí’ means ‘Youth’ in Czech, though Janáček was in his seventies when he completed it. Not long before had had a passionate affair with a woman nearly thirty years his junior - so no doubt the qualities of vitality and virility were very much on his mind. This is another work, like the Nielsen, conceived with a classical profile – opening Allegro with contrasting themes, slow(ish) movement, scherzo and finale – but lovers of the composer will recognise the restless changes of mood and driving ostinati.

All through the disc, the recording is remarkably successful. Wind instruments, particularly in mixed combinations like this, are notoriously difficult to record – the sound they make basically emerges from all kinds of different orifices. So to find a really pleasing balance which is at the same time ‘truthful’ is a great challenge, to which the Chandos engineers have risen splendidly. So this is an enormously satisfying disc; London Winds are technically superb, but it’s the characterisation and imagination of their playing which is so special. Though this will in the first instance appeal to wind aficionados, there is plenty here to delight anyone who loves glorious music in masterly performances.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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