Winds and piano: a masterpiece and three French delights from Zephyr

Zephyr Wind Ensemble with Diedre Irons (piano)
Bridget Douglas – flute, Robert Orr – oboe, Rachel Vernon – clarinet, Robert Weeks –  bassoon, Ed Allen – horn
(Waikanae Musical Society)

Mozart: Quintet for piano and wind instruments, K 452
Poulenc: Trio for oboe , bassoon and piano
Sextet for piano and winds
Ibert: Trois pièces brèves, for wind quintet

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 11 June, 2:30 pm

The players from the NZSO who comprised five-sixths of the Zephyr Wind Ensemble have played together in varying combinations over the years, and several will have played with Diedre Irons.

What this leads one to expect is ensemble and musical rapport at a very high level. It was.

One of the characteristics of the famous Mozart quintet is the entrancing interlacing of the individual instruments. As with most chamber music, it allows no one to hide; furthermore, given the different timbres of each and the tendency of certain instruments to sound more loudly than others, more attention to balance is required than with, for example, a string quartet (though I can imagine protests from string players about that).

Each player seemed to rejoice in Mozart’s detailed writing for each part, making it both distinct and perfectly in harmony with its companions. Winds seem to deal better than strings with the natural dominance of a piano; in any case, Diedre Irons’s playing was most sensitively accommodated to the natural characteristics of each wind instrument. This was particularly impressive given that the music suggested a non-legato, quasi detached style of playing through much of the first movement. Much as one resists singling out individuals, Ed Allen’s horn was both fluent and warmly articulated.

The Larghetto second movement was gently paced, but here I wondered occasionally whether the playing needed to be as detached as it was at times, yet there was plenty of opportunity to admire the particular beauties, including especially the bassoon of Robert Weeks.

In contrast with the first movement, I was more attracted in the Finale to the ensemble maintained by all players, though there were still many moments in which just one, two or three instruments had opportunities to demonstrate an individual finesse. And though I was tempted to think from time to time that it was Mozart’s specially favoured clarinet that made the most characteristic sounds, in the end I felt that it was Robert Orr’s oboe that made the simply most beautiful music.

There were two of Poulenc’s chamber pieces for piano and wind instruments on the programme, both written in the inter-war years; it was good to hear them as it tends to be the three wind sonatas of his last years that are most played. The trio and the sextet are however as important if not as serious as the three post-war sonatas.

However, the trio’s irregular, avant-gardish-sounding opening might come as a surprise to those more used to the jocular and witty Poulenc, to the Poulenc of just three or four years earlier, of Les Biches, for example. However, very soon, tunes that might well be related to parts of the ballet score appear. It offers fine opportunities for both oboe and bassoon which the players relished, as did Diedre Irons at the piano.

In the Andante Poulenc seems determined to show his independence of the Stravinskian or Schoenbergian, perhaps even the Debussyish influences that weighed upon composers in the 20s.  It’s lyrical in a pointillist manner. In a way, there was more scope for instrumental individuality here than in the Mozart piece, and again it was good that the bassoon of Robert Weeks had such exposure. The music returned to the more familiar Poulenc in the last movement, with rewarding some spot-lighting of the Diedre Irons’s piano.

The opening of the Sextet sounded a bit easy-going in the first few bars, but quickly a sense of rich single-mindedness emerged, even if I have to confess to having heard more velvety ensemble on record. The movement almost comes to a stop before a long and beautiful series of slow-paced solos from each changes the tone completely for a couple of minutes.

The slow movement, Divertissement (a favourite word for French composers, but think not of the famous one by Ibert), was almost a lament, led by the oboe, proving that a French composer in the inter-war years was capable of a moment of reflection. Suddenly it turned into the flighty tune from the first movement, but soon returned to the meditative spirit. The finale is full of action and the players caught its occasionally mock-Germanic tone. After a few more twists and turns the piece ends with the bassoon attempting to find a big tune.

This was the piece that ended the concert.

In between the two Poulenc pieces was Ibert’s Three Short Pieces for wind quintet – no piano present. They were conventional in form: the first piece, Allegro, very familiar tune, confirming to me that I knew the pieces, though the anonymous-like title hadn’t helped. The witty music passes from one player to another, each having a lively turn. The second movement took a gentle course, ‘intermezzo’ like, beautifully led by Bridget Douglas’s flute, but again using each instrument distinctly to keep interest alive. The last is defined: Assez lent, after a dignified introduction, the tempo picks up and finally a clear and delightful waltz-like melody, Allegro scherzando, much dominated by Rachel Vernon’s clarinet, though there is very democratic sharing of the pleasures.

The enjoyment of the players, expressed in performances where the opportunity to exhibit inter-wars music that was clearly fun to play and certainly fun to listen to, was grasped wholeheartedly.


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