Thursday, February 9, 2017

Durable wind quintet from Germany pays a return visit to Ensemble Music concert series

BPWQ: Walter Seyfarth, Andreas Wittmann, Fergus McWilliam, Michael Hasel, and Marion Reinhard.
Anticipation ran high before the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet's return visit to Indianapolis under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society: Single-ticket sales were three times above normal over the weekend before its concert Wednesday at the Indiana History Center.

The ensemble's local debut was 18 years ago, and, with just one change of personnel since, the BPWQ included Indianapolis on its current U.S. tour — even gracing us with the American premiere of a work it commissioned from the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho.

The quintet had the capacity audience in the palm of its hands from its initial entrance right through the encore, a lighthearted arrangement of old American tunes, chiefly by Stephen Foster.

The concert opened with one of three pieces Wolfgang Mozart wrote late in life for a mechanical device known as a clock organ, after the similarity of its mechanism to a clock's. Its arrangement (by BPWQ flutist Michael Hasel) released the charming piece from its obsolete-contraption imprisonment to flesh-and-blood musicians. The liberation was well worth the effort, given the ensemble's sturdy blend of timbres and the way Hasel had distributed the material among the quintet.

Like the other two pieces Mozart wrote on commission for the device, K. 594 displays the mature composer's deft chromaticism (in the opening Adagio) and the focus on contrapuntal texture (in the Allegro middle section) Mozart explored under the influence of the antiquarian patron and amateur musician Baron van Swieten.

The Organ Fantasy in F minor made (1790) for a smooth appetizer before the main course, Aho's Wind Quintet No. 2 (2014). The expansive piece almost hides its difficulties well: In the first movement, the players negotiated daring leaps of register within a lyrical framework. The second-movement "virtuoso toccata" (in the composer's phrase) moved on a high plateau of perpetual-motion virtuosity,  capped by Hasel's piccolo, which provided a droll ending. Well-coordinated accents punctuated the ceaseless up-and-down lines.

Something more grounded hovered over the slow movement, with its deeper timbres — alto flute, English horn, and clarinet in A make decisive appearances — and thickened sonorities. Here's where Aho's description that "it's almost like a symphony" seemed to apply best. The gathering intensity was welcome, as the piece drifts a little tediously before its "symphonic" episode, topped by a somewhat pompous unison passage. The finale, dancelike with a triple-time swing and brief, cheeky solos, had a competitive aspect that the quintet emphasized with gusto.

All told, the Aho work amounted to a refreshing rethinking of the combination of flute, oboe, horn, bassoon and clarinet (plus appropriate doubling). Gone were the serenade-like, outdoorsy reflections of the genre ably represented by Franz Danzi. Aho offers a release from the ensemble's traditionally attractive but superficial appeal. He both individualizes the instruments in new ways and throws them together in unconventional combinations. The constituents are given a high degree of independence as well.

After intermission came two classics of the genre, drawing upon wind-quintet conventions but full of individualistic personality. Darius Milhaud's suite, La Cheminee du Roi Rene, is derived from a film about an early Renaissance count (not really a king) from the composer's beloved native region, Provence. In seven short movements, the diversions and leisure activities of Rene d'Anjou are portrayed, with a middle movement slyly alluding to the composer himself at home. The BPWQ gave special splendor to the opening procession ("Cortege"), setting up a properly cinematic presentation of aristocratic Provencal life. The hunting song ("Chasse a Valabre") had particular zest; its variety was well delineated and lent an extra dollop of wit.

As for Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet, op. 43, there's hardly a composition by the Danish composer that is more comfortable with its ambitiousness and is always arresting in its manifold charms. The hearty vigor characteristic of the BPWQ sound was keenly deployed throughout the performance: Andreas Wittmann's assertive but never harsh oboe tone is a key factor. That bold ensemble sound could also be savored in the muscular trilling in the first movement.

The boisterously comic variation for clarinet  and bassoon in the finale was wonderfully set forth by Walter Seyfarth and Marion Reinhard. The variation for solo horn had superb bravura in the playing of Fergus McWilliam. Collectively, the hymn theme was effectively varied between its initial appearance and its luminous concluding statement.

EMS  President John Failey, in his introductory remarks, hinted that positive audience response might lead to a third appearance by this outstanding ensemble in 2019, when it will next tour the US. Such feedback should have no trouble quickly accumulating, based on the way the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet played Wednesday evening.