Distinctive and Diverse Soundworld from Calefax Reed Quintet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Bendusi, Bowman, Ravel, Grieg, Rameau: Calefax Reed Quintet [Oliver Boekhorn – oboe, oboe d’amore, cor anglais; Ivor Berix – clarinet, E-flat clarimet; Alban Wesly – bassoon; Raaf Hekkema – alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Jette Althuis – bass clarinet, basset horn], National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, 15.10.2015.(GPu).

Francesco Bendusi: La Monina; Su l’herba frescha
Christopher Bowman: Largo for Reed Quintet
Maurice Ravel (arr. Rob Zuidam): Ma mère l’Oye
Edvard Grieg (arr. Raaf Hekkema):  Holberg Suite
Jean-Philippe Rameau: (arr. Raaf Hekkema): Suite La Triomphante, from Pièces de Clavecin)

Working as an ensemble with unusual instrumentation has the obvious disadvantage that there is no heritage of compositions for your instrumental formation (In the case of a group such as the Calefax Reed Quintet, which contains a saxophonist, there can by definition be no music written prior to the invention of the saxophone, i.e. before the 1840s.) Conversely an accomplished ensemble should find it relatively easy to get new works specifically written for them by composers interested in exploring the possibilities of an unorthodox combination of instruments. And, of course, music originally written for other instruments is available for arrangement.

The excellent Calefax Quintet , whose individual members display considerable instrumental virtuosity and who have a quite splendid togetherness as a group, have an extensive repertoire made up of new works (some two hundred works have been specially written for them) and arrangements, often witty and surprising, many of them made by members of the quintet.

Their programme on this occasion traversed a period of more than 460 years, from 1553 to 2015. They began their performance in a theatrical yet informal fashion, with oboist Oliver Boekhorn walking unannounced, playing the opening bars of the first piece and stepping up on to the low stage without pause or interruption before being joined by the rest of the group one at a time. The first two pieces played were arrangements of dances from the only published collection of Francesco Bendusi Opera nova de balli … accommodati da cantare & sonare, d’ogni sorte de stromenti, a 4, published in Venice in 1553. The first of the two dances by Bendusi was slowish and pleasantly melodic, played in a manner and arrangement that had something of a jazz ballad about it – more than once during the evening, I came to the conclusion that this was an ensemble that had listened to some of the great saxophone quartets of jazz, such as the World Saxophone Quartet or even the more experimental Rova Saxophone Quartet. Such an impression was reinforced by the rhythmic vitality of the second piece from Bendusi, a lively and vivacious dance, the effect of which might be described as a piece for brass ensemble by Giovanni Gabrieli performed with some freedom by a jazz ensemble. What the first two pieces made unarguably clear was what fine musicians the members of the Calefax Quintet are.

There was less of a jazz feel in the newly written Largo, by the young Welsh composer Christopher Bowman (born in 1997). This short piece (some five minutes long), so new that in the advance publicity it could be listed only as an untitled ‘New Work’, required Raaf Hekkema to switch from the soprano saxophone he had played in the Bendusi arrangements to the alto saxophone. The piece had some very attractive, beautifully phrased, legato lines and the whole was elegantly shaped, without being especially memorable.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (Ma mère l’Oye) proved, in an arrangement by Dutch composer Rob Zuidam (b.1964), a perfect fit for this particular group of instruments, whether in the dulcet passages of ‘Pavan de la Belle au bois dormant’ or the chirruping oboe elsewhere in the same movement, or, indeed, in the fanfare-like ‘bird calls’ in ‘Petit Poucet’. The use of the E-flat clarinet and the basset horn in some movements of the suite, but not in others, made for some delightful and fascinating changes of texture.

The arrangement of the Holberg Suite, made by the group’s saxophonist Raaf Hakkema worked especially well, with the ‘Praeludium’ having a slightly greater angularity and piquancy than the original, and the opening of the ‘Sarabande’ given an almost sultry moodiness. The whole of this movement presented Grieg’s music in terms of overlapping passages of changing sound textures, while in the central Gavotte most of Grieg’s best melodies were given to the clarinet and were particularly well played by Ivar Berix. It was the oboe of Oliver Boekhorn that initially carried the serious theme of the Air (marked ‘Andante religioso), while each member of the ensemble had his moment in the foreground during the closing ‘Rigaudon’ – the arrangement for five reeds perhaps carrying more overtones of the form’s origins as a folk dance than Grieg’s original writing, first for piano and then for string orchestra, does.

The formal part of the programme closed with another arrangement by Raaf Hakkema, this time of Rameau’s La Suite Triomphante. The instrumental colours available to the quintet transformed the attractive but relatively austere music of Rameau’s writing for harpsichord into something more sumptuous and sensuous (perhaps at some cost to the structural qualities of the original). The result, overall, was thoroughly enjoyable – not least in the oboe-led ‘Courante’ and the very up-tempo ‘Les Trois Mains’, with the oboe and clarinet dancing above a ‘ground’ provided by the bassoon. ‘La Triomphante’ itself, the sixth movement of Rameau’s Suite in A Minor had a regally celebratory quality, more sumptuous than even the best of harpsichords and the finest of harpsichordists can produce.

The Suite in A minor was first published in Rameau’s Nouvelles Suites de Pièces de Clavecin (1729-30) and the Calefax Quintet returned to the same publication for the encore demanded by an appreciative audience. This was their version of ‘La Poule’, the fourth movement of Rameau’s Suite in G minor. Double reed instruments such as the oboe and the bassoon proved, unsurprisingly, thoroughly suited to the evocation of the cluckings of Rameau’s eponymous farmyard bird, and the piece joyfully brought a very enjoyable (if not especially profound) concert to a close.

At various points ahead of the concert I had found myself wondering about the significance of this quintet’s name. Initially I was tempted to pronounce the name something like ‘Kailfax’ and could make little of it. Then it occurred to me during the concert that one might pronounce it more like ‘Calleh Fax’ – with a relationship to two Latin nouns, calor (heat) and fax (a torch or a firebrand), although one might also take the second element of the name to be related to the verb facere (to make or create). Either way, Calefax now seems to me a name well-suited to a group who produce such a warm sound and who, indeed, sent their audience out into a chilly autumn evening with a warm inner glow of pleasure.

Glyn Pursglove

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