Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Translated to Reeds

19/03/2017

Tchaikovsky, Muhly, Bach: The Calefax Wind Quintet (Oliver Boekhoorn [oboe], Ivar Berix [clarinet], Raaf Hekkema [saxophone], Jelte Althuis [bass clarinet], Alban Wesly [bassoon]) Town Hall, New York City, 5.3.2017. (KG)

TchaikovskyThe Nutcracker Suite

Nico MuhlyLook For Me

Bach (arr. Busoni) – Chaconne in D minor

BachGoldberg Variations

The Calefax Reed Quintet’s claim to be the world’s first fivesome of their particular hybrid shouldn’t take away from this correspondent’s hyperbolic claim that they are also the world’s best. Even if another one comes along (or, indeed, already has), it’s hard to imagine them topping this outfit from Amsterdam.

The ensemble—comprised of oboe, saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and bassoon, with multiple members of each family represented—gave a couple of performances in New York in March: an evening of Bach revisionism at Advent Lutheran Church, followed by a show at the cavernous Town Hall. The latter, a Sunday matinee, was less daring than the Advent program (which included György Kurtág and Salvatore Sciarrino arrangements), but it offered a chance to luxuriate in the gorgeous Calefax sound for an entire concert.

Their Nutcracker Suite, which opened the concert, was a midday crowd pleaser, even if a couple months late for the holidays. What it lacked in attack was more than made up for by the joy of listening to bassoonist Alban Wesly—one of the two remaining original members—playing lines meant for a more easily handled instrument. The group followed that with the U.S. premiere of Look For Me, a commission from Nico Muhly. The composer’s populist tendencies put it closer to the Nutracker than to the Goldbergs which would follow, but the intermingling of the staggered melody lines was rich and satisfying.

In cautious English, Wesly paraphrased Busoni, noting his idea that there as many decisions made between a composer’s initial abstraction and what gets put down in the score, as there are between that score and a subsequent arrangement. Then the ensemble played Busoni’s version—further arranged for their own instrumentation—of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, but their realization felt busy and overinflated.

If the concert’s first half held the promise of what the group is capable, Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the second half delivered. Four members entered stage left playing the opening aria before oboist entered on the right, meeting along the back of the stage. Choreographed as if having polite party conversation, the clarinets moved to the front by the end of the section and then played the first variation in duo. The other three took the second variation.

They worked through the four-part inventions, rotating instruments and reconfiguring sometimes as a duo, trio or quartet, eliminating—as they did on their 2012 recording (and as Gould famously did)—the score’s repeats, keeping the set under 45 minutes. They moved through the music and around the stage, returning to a line formation along the back, readying themselves for the stunning beauty of Variation 30.

To watch them (rather than to listen to their recording of the Bach) is to be forced to realize the group is just five men. On one hand, the quintet comes together like the voices of an organ, but at the same time the individual reeds give a vitality quite different than versions played on a harpsichord or by a string quartet. Many people have done the Goldbergs in many different ways, but few can claim a perfect revision. Calefax sits alongside Fretwork (a consort of viols) and few others in reinventing the work in their own unique way.

As an encore for the enthusiastic audience, “New Amsterdam,” a song written by New York eccentric Moondog, was given a clever take. Arranged and introduced by the clarinetist Ivar Berix, the group built gradually, from solo to quintet, repeating the plaintive melody before Berix sang the simple verse, “New Amsterdam was her name / He thought she was New York,” before a quick barbershop vocal and a horn cadenza completed the afternoon.

Kurt Gottschalk

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