Diverting variety in sparkling arrangements for reed quintet, Category Five

Category Five – Chamber Music Hutt Valley

Wind ensemble: (Peter Dykes – oboe and cor anglais, Moira Hurst – clarinet, Mark Cookson – clarinet and bass clarinet, Oscar Lavën – bassoon, Simon Brew – alto and soprano saxophone)

Tchaikovsky: Overture to The Nutcracker; Mozart: Quintet in C minor, K 406 (adaptation of the adaptation of the Serenade, K 388); Ruud Roelofsen: Tidesa postcard from Zeeland; Rameau: La poule; Bach: ‘Jesu joy of man’s desiring’ (arr. Bryan Crump), from Cantata, BWV 147; Gershwin: Three Preludes; Byrd: Fantasia à 5The leaves bee greene; Debussy (Children’s Corner Suite)

The Little Theatre, Lower Hutt

Sunday 1 September, 3:30 pm

The first thing that struck me as I sat down at this concert was the good sized audience: more, I think, than most of the evening concerts that I’ve attended in Lower Hutt recently. I guess the committee will be wondering about the wisdom of shifting their concert times, though that could lead to the risk of clashes with the increasing number of other concerts that are attaching themselves to Sunday afternoons. On this particular Sunday there were at least three concerts of classical music.

We heard this excellent ensemble after a couple of their concerts for Chamber Music New Zealand: so far, Te Awamutu and Whanganui with seven more stops around the North Island, and Blenheim and Motueka.

Eight distinct items are a lot; so many shortish pieces might have risked an impression of scrappiness but that was not at all the case for there was a substantial piece in each half, around which the smaller items offered interesting variety.

What is often called the miniature overture to Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker, is no more slight than many an opera or ballet prelude and the important wind parts in the original meant that there seemed little change to the sound, even given the presence of the more foreign alto saxophone in the mix. What the arrangement did for me was draw attention to the inner parts of the score which I had not been particularly aware of before, and the whole made a delightful start to the concert.

The major work in the programme was the piece that Mozart first wrote as a Serenade for wind octet,
carrying the Köchel number 388. It’s one of Mozart’s three serenades that comprise the greatest and most beautiful works in the entire repertoire for extended wind ensemble. When in 1788 Mozart needed a string quintet he arranged the piece which was, conveniently, in four movements, to fill that role, now given the catalogue number 406. This combination, particularly the strange timbre of Oscar Lavën’s bassoon and Simon Brew’s saxophone, gave rise to an odd husky throatiness in the opening phrases; though my ears soon became acclimatised.  Though it could be argued that the original scoring for eight wind instruments, pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, produces a sound that Mozart has made his own and therefore carries an authentic feeling of inevitability, that was slightly missing from this reduction, and the presence of the saxophone, the sophisticated shape of this piece and its rich invention overcame any pedantic attitudes that might fleetingly have arisen.

A relationship with a young Dutch composer, Ruud Roelofsen, produced a piece, Tides, written for this group, linking the province of Zeeland with this country. There were maritime hints: the sounds bassoon and bass clarinet, from Mark Cookson, used atmospherically to suggest water undulating around wharf piles and lapping the hulls of ships; of ships’ horns; slithering effects, with microtones on the saxophone. An attractive, evocative piece well suited to a wintery harbour seascape.

The familiar La Poule is found in Rameau’s Suite in G minor, one of the two suites comprising the Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin published in 1728.  Given that a group of wind instruments can never replicate the staccato brilliance of a piano, let alone the pecking sound that the harpsichord could imitate even better, the oboe-led performance created an effect that was bright and comical.

The second half began with an arrangement by one Bryan Crump of the chorale known in English as ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’ (Jesus bleibet meine Freude), from the Cantata ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’, BWV 147. It’s one of those pieces that survive almost any transcription; Peter Dykes’s oboe again led the way with a rapid accompanying motif, and although he remarked that the clarinet would be playing the part of the singers, it was his oboe that rather dominated the performance which was, nevertheless, most affecting.

Gershwin’s Three Preludes were written for the piano but his jazz-steeped spirit proved a real gift for Simon Brew’s alto saxophone, though the pieces lay no less well with the oboe, the bass clarinet or the bassoon, which provided quirky underpinning in the third Prelude.

William Byrd’s Fantasia, ‘The Leaves bee Greene’ was the reason for the presence by Brew’s chair
of the soprano saxophone, and for the cor anglais that Dykes had been nursing. They contrived to bring a thoroughly anchronistic yet delightful quality to the performance.

It proved an unlikely though musically apt prelude to Debussy’s Children’s Corner. This was the counterbalancing major work, against the Mozart in the first half, and its piquant, witty, charming variety was splendidly captured in this very effective arrangement of the piano original. There were aural surprises at every turn, and the turns in the course of the six movements were many. In the sly allusion to Clementi’s studies, the bane of every young pianist’s life, the liquid notes of Moira Hurst’s clarinet climbed from the depths to take on the treble lines of the alto sax and oboe. The Doll’s Serenade was lit by bell-like tones from sax, bassoon and bass clarinet. And this colourful ensemble treated the ever-popular Golliwog’s Cake Walk with great success in the very different sound world of reed instruments and, particularly, the saxophone.

In response to the audience’s delighted applause, they played a very unfamiliar piece by Duke Ellington, after some short remarks from Moira Hurst acknowledging the critical role of Chamber Music New Zealand in organising and supporting their tour, and supporting so much musical performance generally, throughout New Zealand.