Ensemble Zefiro a breath of fresh, tangy air in Wellington

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

Alfredo Bernardini , Paolo Grazzi – oboes
Alberto Grazzi, Giorgio Mandolesi – bassoons
Dileno Baldin, Francesco Meucci – horns

HANDEL – Due arie HWV 410,411
Marcia in F Major HWV 346
FASCH – Sonata in G Minor, FWV N:g1
TELEMANN – Ouverture in F Major TWV 55:F9
HAYDN – Parthia in C Major Hob.II.7
MOZART – Divertimento in E-flat, K.252/240a.

Michael Fowler Centre,

Friday 10th August, 2018

I’ve copied out the titles of the pieces as per programme, which accounts for the unusual names for aria (arie), overture (ouverture) and partita (Parthia), the last of which I thought at first was some kind of misprint. But no – there it was – Parthia, an alternative form of “partita”. So as it was something I didn’t know before I thought it was worth committing to review! However I must admit to being a little bemused by something else in the programme, the description of the Greek God Zefiro (whose name the ensemble has adopted) as “tender and Kind”, when I knew the legend of the same God’s jealous petulance which prompted the mean-spirited act of using his powers to blow a discus off course to disrupt a game between Apollo and a young boy, Hyacinth, whom Zefiro fancied – which ploy went horribly wrong when the object hit and killed Hyacinth! – the best-laid plans, etc…….still. there are so many conflicting stories regarding these deities, it’s a case of “pick-and-choose” when it comes to identifying with certain personalities and their traits. (hmmm – I’d better get on with the review, I suppose…….)

I loved the ensemble’s playing, right from the beginning, though I must admit that Handel’s music is one of those phenomena happily available to all and sundry that simply can’t help inducing a sense of well-being and contentment on contact! Here, straightaway, we in the audience (a decently-stocked ground floor at the MFC) were simply buoyed along by the energy, wit and charm of the composer’s seemingly limitless invention, fully realised by the ensemble’s playing. And what made the music even more endearing on this occasion were those characterful “authentic-instrument” sounds, the arrestingly nasal oboes, the throaty bassoons and the fruity (if occasionally asthmatic) horns. The point of the exercise seemed to me to refreshingly differentiate and contrast, rather than blend and smooth over, the different strands, the distinctive voices.  Why, I found myself thinking, as the music went along, would you want to “blend” sounds in a way that negated so much character and individuality, of the kind that was on show here?

Well, as Ecclesiastes says, there’s a time for everything, a time to blend and a time to differentiate (to coin an extremely unpoetic phrase!). It was simply refreshing to encounter an evening’s playing which seemed to proclaim “Vive la difference!” rather than seek to contain, control and smooth out differences in sounds. Not that Ensemble Zefiro couldn’t “blend” when they wanted to – but even when they did no individual strand or timbre disappeared or lost any of its character. It’s a quality I sometimes encounter when playing older orchestral or wind ensemble recordings, on which one hears sounds that are individual to the point of being quite “ornery” at certain moments – afterwards, turning to recordings of almost any 21st-century orchestra one finds oneself at a loss to discern any individual “character” in the actual sound, however skilled the playing might be.

Another quality that the authentic instrumental timbres underlined in the music was its “out-of-doors” aspect, and not only regarding the horns – in the second of the Handel “Arie” (HWV 411) I felt a kind of “spaciousness” about the sounds, a ready evocation of the “al fresco”, to do with, perhaps, a number of things, the players standing in a line accentuating the music’s antiphonal aspect, and the spaciousness of the Michael Fowler Centre, not to mention the horns in particular having “outdoor” associations anyway. But regarding the last point, both oboes and bassoons here took on more of a rustic character than I often associate with them – and in fact, the group’s spokesperson, Alfredo Bernadini, alluded to this “out-of-door” association, ironically when introducing a very different work by the evening’s second composer, Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758).  Bernadini described Fasch’s piece, a Sonata in G Minor for two oboes and bassoon, plus bassoon continuo, as much more “chamber” and intimate in style.

The piece opened with a Largo movement,  the tones sombre and plaintive, and the instrumental timbres expressive and gorgeously fruity. One could hear before long why it was that JS Bach had a high regard for Fasch’s music, with the piece moving steadily and unerringly towards an expressive climax immediately leading to the second movement Allegro. Here was zest and bounce aplenty in the writing, the oboes offering chattering melodic leads and the bassoon delicious stepwise counterpoints. The composer replicated his markings for the following two movements, the second Largo enabling the bassoon to demonstrate its engagingly wheezy lyrical tones, working with its continuo partner in figurations an octave apart, and sounding like a pair of ancient, characterful voices! The Allegro finale really put the onus on one of the bassoons with an insanely virtuosic part, the notes literally flying from his instrument!

Telemann’s music then made an appearance, an “Ouverture in F Major”, a work written along the lines of JS Bach’s Orchestral Suites, consisting of an initial piece also called an “ouverture” followed by a number of French dances – while Bach wrote only four such words for instrumental ensemble, Telemann produced well over a hundred. This particular Ouverture (or “Suite”), for two oboes, two horns and bassoon continuo, was nicknamed “The Hunt”, referring in part, perhaps, to the prominence given the pair of horns in the work.

Certainly the opening piece gave the pair ample opportunity to make their presence felt, mostly by interrupting the more garrulous oboes at every possible opportunity, reminding them that they were still “here”. The Allegro section of the opening was spectacularly marked by the horns with a fanfare-like figure, again keeping a watchful ear on what the oboes and bassoon were doing. Throughout, the bassoon seemed almost an intermediary between the garrulous Montague-like oboes and the volatile Capulet-like horns, calling the ensemble to order when things got outlandish (particularly the occasional hi-jinks from the Capulets!).

Right through the course of the dances, the instrumental detailings gave us great delight, chirpy phrases galore from the oboes and occasional blasts of wind from the horns during both of the Passepied sections, a lovely glow illuminated with horn calls during the Sarabande, fanfares and giggles at the ends of phrases further enlivening the Rigaudon, and a dignified, regal sweep and grandly processional poise accompanying the concluding Le Plaisir. The ensemble certainly gave us “moments per minute” during this varied and entertaining sequence.

An interval later we were taken into the classical world of Haydn and Mozart, necessitating a change of instruments for the oboe- and bassoon-players. Thanks in part to the cheekiness of Haydn’s writing for the ensemble in the first movement of his Parthia in C Major, we didn’t notice as sharply as we might have the change in actual “engagement” of the instrumental sound, the tones smoother and more elegant-sounding in themselves, though here employed by the composer in ear-catching ways with writing whose wit and sparkle recalled  certain of the composer’s piano sonatas. The first of the work’s five movements featured a fanfare-like leading motif being tossed about in gay abandon, and given extra pomposity by the horns, and finishing with an abruptly-turned phrase which left a single low note unashamedly exposed (I involuntarily snorted with laughter, and had to apologise to my companion at the next break in the music!).

A regal and dignified Menuet-and-Trio began with oboes only, before turning to a Trio section with delightfully emphatic horns, all of which preceded an Adagio with a lovely, easeful rhythmic carriage, the oboes rhapsodising, the bassoons gently jog-trotting and the horns contributing answering or “rounding-off” phrases – everything so beautifully and expressively played. Then came ANOTHER Menuet-and-Trio, this time lots of minor-key staccato strutting, completely different in character to the one before. Haydn then rounded off the work with an unbuttoned presto gallop across the fields for all concerned, the bassoons performing miracles of articulation and repeated-note playing, and horns whooping in delight, the piece finishing with a Beethovenish “take that!” gesture!

The Mozart Divertimento K.252/240a in E-flat concluded the programme in style – the ensemble generated an engaging “swing” to the rhythm over which the oboes sounded the melody, the horns and bassoons easefully alternating between chordings and “echo phrases”. The Menuetto was a sprightly dance with gloriously “burbled” horn-writing, exhilaratingly performed, before a rather strange Trio section with a repeated descending figure, here played faster than the main dance, for some reason – it sounded merely as though the players wanted to get it over with so they could get back to the real fun!

Then came, rather unexpectedly, a Polonaise, its rhythm catchy and foot-tapping, like a popular dance number – some lovely antiphonal writing here, which the ensemble coloured nicely with varied dynamics, the horns making much of the rhythm’s syncopations. Presto assai said the finale, and the players responded with energy and wit, finishing with a flourish! We thought the players would by then have “blown themselves out”, but they generously came back for an encore – one, moreover, with a difference, a work entitled “Homage to Haydn” (sitting some way back from the platform as we were, neither my friend nor I could quite make out the announcement of the actual composer’s name).

Beginning with and establishing an infectiously strutting march reminiscent of Haydn’s “Military” Symphony, the music reached what we all thought sounded like a concluding cadence, but then continued, despite one of the bassoonists standing up, bowing, and then leaving the platform and coming down into the auditorium as the others played on. After another sequence had finished, one of the horn players did the same thing, followed a few measures later by the second horn player, leaving the oboists and one of the bassoonists continuing to play! One by one, each oboist finished a phrase, and then stood up and left the platform, with the single bassoonist left – he played a doleful-sounding minor-key cadenza-like passage finishing with a trill, and then stood up, acknowledging our laughter and applause, as did the others who rejoined him.  It was all great fun, and completely in accord with the delight we’d experienced and enjoyed throughout the concert.


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