Monday, October 1, 2007

Review: Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Oct. 1, University of Richmond

Cull the adjectives and adverbs from reviews of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, and you’ll have a comprehensive lexicon of critical superlatives. Rather than try to come up with novel huzzahs, I'll just say that no such ensemble equals, let alone surpasses, the Berliners.

Flutist Michael Hasel, oboist Andreas Wittmann, clarinetist Walter Seyfarth, French horn player Fergus McWilliam and bassoonist Henning Trog are all veterans of 20 years or more with the Berlin Philharmonic. (Trog has been in the orchestra since 1965.) Performing as a quintet since 1988, they have mastered most every piece worth hearing for this instrumental configuration.

Their program at the University of Richmond centered on three of the worthiest 20th century works for wind quintet: György Ligeti’s "Six Bagatelles" (1953), Luciano Berio’s "opus number zoo" (1951) and Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet (1922).

The Ligeti set was the evening’s prime showcase for these musicians’ individual and collective techniques, from the comically frenetic, cartoon-chase-scene opening allegro, through several slow pieces evoking Magyar, Slavic and Jewish laments (including an elegy to Bartók, Ligeti’s early role model), to the capriccio finale. McWilliam and Trog produced especially appealing effects with mutes attached.

The group performed "opus number zoo" with players doubling as reciters of Rhoda Levine’s comic verses. The words didn’t always make it through Berio’s animated instrumental traffic – effectively amplified in the bright acoustic of the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall – but the fun the performers were having was infectious nevertheless.

Nielsen’s Wind Quintet is one of the most concise and successful examples of the composer’s later style, which spikes his technique of "progressive tonality" with quirky, often wicked wit. The Berliners played up the piece’s startling qualities – maybe the most startling moment came in the huge, jagged sonority they produced in the prelude to the theme-and-variations finale – and made eloquent work of horn and bassoon solos and of the finale’s sturdy chorale.

The Berliners opened with Hasel’s arrangement of Mozart’s Fantasy in F minor, originally for mechanical organ, an instrumental curiosity of the late 18th century. The piece, dating from 1791, Mozart’s last year, is rooted in a fuguing tune clearly inspired by Bach, which the ensemble treated with appropriate austerity and gravity.

The program also included Franz Danzi’s Quintet in F major, a well-crafted if lightweight piece in the late-classical idiom of Mozart and Haydn.

As an encore, the quintet offered Kazimierz Machala’s "Folk Song Suite," a quick-time anthology of early Americana (heavy on Stephen Foster), spiced with jazzy accents and bluesy slides.