Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Zephyr – breaths of fresh air

By , 23/09/2012

Chamber Music New Zealand

Zephyr Wind Quintet

Music by Elliott Carter, Gareth Farr, Carl Nielsen, Darius Milhaud, Ross Edwards, Gyorgy Ligeti

Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 23rd September

What a joy when one literally stumbles across a piece of music that then becomes a favorite! I didn’t even know wind quintets existed when, way back during my formative music explorations in the Palmerston North Public Library (what an Aladdin’s Cave of a place!) I chanced across an LP recording by the Philadelphia Wind Quintet. “Nielsen”, it said on the cover – and “Barber” as well, if I remember rightly. The Nielsen was, of course, that composer’s Wind Quintet, the very first music of his I ever heard – and I loved it right from that first bassoon phrase, with those chirpy, out-of-doors responses tumbling over one another, as if for the sheer joy of being breathed into life and set in motion.

Since then, I’ve acquired several wonderful recordings of the Nielsen, my favorite being the Melos Ensemble’s characterful 1960s performance for EMI – but live performances have, until this concert , eluded me. I can imagine being more than content had the Zephyr Wind Quintet played only the Nielsen work at their recent concert, as it was such a benediction to hear it “live”, let alone played so magnificently by the ensemble.

However, it was my good fortune to have the work “framed” in concert by a number of attractive and contrasting pieces by other composers , who also seemed to know a thing or two about writing for winds. Beginning the program was a work by Elliott Carter, the music having a similar kind of instant appeal to that of Nielsen’s – perhaps busier and more densely-textured, but  just as inclined towards lyricism. As with Nielsen, a droll sense of humour was never far away, with strongly-characterised episodes in the music used as “foils” for one another, deep tolling bells at one point enlivened by birdsong, with subsequent wind-flurries setting the cat among the pigeons.

A second part, allegro giocoso, clicked some even higher voltage-switches on, setting in motion rapid-fire momentums which delighted the ear, whether settling upon an individual instrumentals line or registering the contrapuntal dovetailing. The music argument seemed to intensify, as if a lot of people at a dinner-party were shouting at one another, trying to make individual points at all costs, before the host, with a shrug of the shoulders and a disarming word or two, defused the argument and bade everybody goodnight.

Gareth Farr’s Mad Little Machine which followed was a Zephyr commission for the group’s current tour – aptly titled, the piece brought out bags of “attitude” from each of the instruments, expressed both in individual and concerted ways. Right from the opening cavortings of the bass clarinet, which both astonished and alarmed everybody else, there was energy and bite as flourishes of impulse from all the different voices were tossed between the group.

The near-constant motoric, syncopated rhythms generated crackling energy, unexpectedly allowing a”luftpause” mid-work before setting off again even more mad-headedly, the figurations wild and angular, and the combinations amusingly bizarre  (piccolo and bass clarinet amusingly “spooking” one another, at one point). It all came to an abrupt end, not with a bang, but with a squeak, to everybody’s great delight. Wonderful, too, that the composer was present, applauding the performance as enthusiastically as HE himself was being applauded!

After these exertions, the Nielsen work seemed to come from another world, lyrical, spacious and bracingly “outdoor” in feeling. The composer wrote the quintet for the Copenhagen Quintet, with the individual characteristics of each player very much in mind. In fact, had he lived longer, Nielsen might have completed his promise of writing individual concerti for each of the Quintet members – as it was he finished only two of the larger works, for flute and then for clarinet. We have left only the Quintet to give us the barest of glimpses of the remaining three players’ personalities.

Apart from one or two vagrant notes and a slight ensemble hesitation when beginning the final grand statement of the first movement’s ascending opening melody, the playing was spick-and-span, flexible and alert, throughout the work. The performance, I felt, concentrated more on the music’s fluency than its occasional quirkiness and pungency – those evidently characterful and volatile personalities who helped inspire the work were mostly on their best behaviour this time round.

I wondered whether the Town Hall acoustic told against some of the work’s immediacy, the sounds integrated almost to a fault, so that we were denied some of the spikiness of Nielsen’s writing. Beautiful details, such as Ed Allen’s first solo in the opening movement, were wonderful, but the strands of colour and texture in ensemble seemed “tamed” in those voluminous spaces. In a smaller hall we would undoubtedly have enjoyed a more flavoursome sound-picture.

The finale, with its frequent solo and duo passages, here most tellingly enabled the players to be themselves, the “wandering in the wilderness opening” featuring plenty of wind-blown freedom and acerbic calling-to-order, while each of the variations following the beautiful hymn-tune (Nielsen’s own setting of a chorale “My Jesus, let my heart receive thee”) created its own intense colour-and-texture experience to wonderfully expressive effect. This tune first appeared in a sing-song 3/4 rhythm, but its reprise at the very end was as a grandly processional 4/4, at once celebratory and humbly moving. (The interval, immediately afterwards, allowed me and others plenty of space to savour it all further!).

Back afterwards for Darius Milhaud’s entertaining suite La Cheminée du roi René, a seven-movement work originally written for a film about an historical ruler from Milhaud’s own Aix-en-Provence, one which brought out the composer’s own piquant response to evocations of earlier times. The movements were all very short, but each made a distinct impression of specific things, processionals, morning songs, entertainers and entertainments. The musicians successfully captured and brought to life these charming vignettes, concluding with a Madrigal-nocturne, whose dream-like rituals gradually faded with the sounds of ancient fanfares at the end.

Strange to hear echoes of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony in Ross Edwards’ work Incantations, with calls sounding across a crepuscular landscape at the outset. Wild horn-whoops and all, the atmosphere captured by the players set the scene for the second movement’s insect-like molto animato, one whose repetitive figurations tightened into a kind of naturalistic ritual chant, to almost claustrophobic effect – whew! As for the finale, the sounds seemed almost filmic to me, primordial at the start, then developing mesmeric rhythms that gathered up hymn-like strands whose oscillations continued in my brain long after the actual music had stopped.

Rounding off this concert’s wonderfully discursive explorings were Gyorgy Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, pieces which belie their “trifles” classification. The pieces are arrangements by the composer of movements from a series of piano pieces called Musica ricercata, which he wrote in the 1950s. Listening to Zephyr’s brilliantly vivid realizations of this music I found it hard to imagine the pieces in any other guise than for wind ensemble. From the “Keystone Cops-like” opening movement, through the ebb and flow of lament, folksong and energetic dance, Ligeti’s pieces whirled us through whole worlds in microcosm, leaving us almost as breathless as the players by the time the final Vivace capriccioso had “done its dash”.

We were a none-too-sizeable audience when put in the relative vastness of the Town Hall, but we roared and clapped our appreciation as whole-heartedly as we could at the end – a great concert experience!

 

 

 

 

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