Josef Bohuslav FOERSTER (1859-1951)
Wind Quintet in D major, op.95 (1909) [19:20]
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)
Wind Quintet, op.10 (1929) [13:57]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Mládí (Youth), Sextet for Wind Quintet and Bass Clarinet (1924) [17:22]
Jindřich Pavliš (bass clarinet in Janáček)
rec. Prague 2017
SUPRAPHON SU4230-2 [50:56]
This youthful Czech ensemble is continuing a great tradition. All admirers of Czech orchestras will recognise the special qualities of Czech wind playing; pliantly expressive reeds, fresh, pure flute sound, and creamy horn tone with just a tasteful hint of vibrato. All those characteristics are present in the playing of the Belfiato Quintet – the name means, appropriately, ‘beautiful wind’ – together with outstanding levels of individual brilliance, and an unshakably secure sense of ensemble. This is superlative wind playing.
The wind quintet is a curious phenomenon. It came into existence at the end of the 18th century as, supposedly, the wind players’ answer to the string quartet. But a couple of things in particular ensured that the two species of ensemble never became truly comparable; firstly, unlike the string quartet, the five instruments of the wind quintet each have totally personal tone-colours, requiring great skill from composer or arranger in order to create blend and balance; and secondly, wind instruments simply don’t have the sheer flexibility of dynamic - extreme soft to extreme loud, with every gradation in between - that their string cousins do.
What the medium does have, however, is a potentially kaleidoscopic range of colours and textures, and the Belfiatos certainly capitalise on that. The wonderful thing about their playing is that they are all capable of disappearing into the texture when necessary, yet when solo passages arrive, as they do in plenty, each player is capable of producing the bravura and the expressive nuance to project the music thrillingly. It might be a little invidious, but I would single out the horn player, a petite lady called Kateřina Javůrková, for her exceptional beauty of tone, and the stunning flexibility of technique and phrasing that she brings to passages like, for example, her solo about one minute into the first movement of Pavel Haas’s lovely quintet (track 5).
Invidious, yes; because all five players produce many moments of wonderful musicianship, and they give us here three works of real quality. Janáček’s late masterpiece ‘Mládí’, written during the period of the ageing composer’s passion for the much younger Kamila Stösslová, is the one work which many music-lovers are likely to know. It is given a superbly idiomatic performance, my only reservation being that I would have liked a greater sense of culmination at the end of the finale. But that is more than compensated for by many extraordinary moments, notably the hushed pianissimi of the second movement - such control.
Josef Foerster’s Quintet of 1909 is a piece of great charm, written resourcefully and skilfully for the medium. The style has certain overtones of Richard Strauss, mainly in the harmonies (reminding us that Strauss did in fact compose a number of works for wind ensembles). For me the most interesting work on the disc, though, is the Quintet of 1929 by the Moravian-Jewish composer Pavel Haas, tracks 5 - 8. This highly talented musician’s life ended in 1944, when he was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. This is a quirky, delightful piece, which exploits the strongly individual characters of the instruments brilliantly, and has an unusual and original sequence of movements; a distracted opening Preludio, with dance elements: a lovely slow movement entitled Preghiera – ‘prayer’ – that draws a memorably imaginative and emotional response from the ensemble: a ballo eccentrico – ‘eccentric dance’ - which chatters away happily, with a piccolo enhancing the chirpiness: and a final thoughtful Epilogo. A brilliant work, which serves to emphasise that Haas was yet another tragic loss to the world of music.
Wind instruments produce their sounds out of a bewildering variety of orifices, making them a bit of a nightmare to record! Which make it a great pleasure to say that the recorded sound and balance are just about perfect - not a word one uses very often, but entirely merited here. At around 50 minutes, some might complain of short-changing. I say not a bit of it – never mind the length, hear the quality!