London Winds Demonstrate Emotional Range in Music for Wind Quintet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ibert, Barber, Nielsen: London Winds (Philippa Davies [flute], Gareth Hulse [oboe], Michael Collins [clarinet]; Katy Woolley [horn]), The Weston Gallery, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff. 23.3.2018. (GPu)

Philippa Davies © Katie van Dyke
Philippa Davies © Katie van Dyke

Ibert – Trois Pièces brèves
Barber – Summer Music
Nielsen – Wind Quintet Op.43

Founded by clarinettist Michael Collins in 1988, London Winds works both as a quintet and in larger formations as specific music and particular occasions require. It was as a quintet that they performed in this concert. London Winds are, deservedly, held in high regard as a leading chamber ensemble. Paradoxical as it may seem, I suspect that I might have been more excited by this concert if I hadn’t known, from past experience, just how very accomplished they are. That they were indeed very accomplished seemed merely to fulfil my expectations, rather than excite me.

The concert took place, not in RWCMD’s modern concert hall, but in the much smaller, Weston Gallery – a pleasant room lined with nineteenth- and twentieth-century pictures in the College’s older buildings. This certainly made for intimacy in the relationship between performers and audience, though sight-lines were rather less than perfect for many in the audience, though I am not sure that there weren’t acoustic losses.

London Winds chose to play a programme made up of three staple works from the twentieth-century repertoire for wind quintet. Fine as all these three works are, I couldn’t help but wish that they had included something a little more adventurous, such as Ligeti’s Sechs Bagatellen, for example, a work London Winds have recorded. What they did play, was handled with the absolute in technical accomplishment – both individually and as an ensemble – and with consistent musical insight.

Ibert’s Trois Pièces brèves, of 1930, made an attractive appetiser for this lunchtime concert, being both charming and witty. Ibert makes a definite virtue of the brevity of these pieces (less than seven minutes in total) writing concisely and with a sharp pointedness. The opening allegro is bright and quirkily colourful, sounding for all the world like incidental music for a particularly sophisticated comedy, being full of ironic touches and near-parody. Phillipa Davies’ flute was brightness itself and Michael Collins’ clarinet was jauntily graceful in the statement of a ‘spring-like’ theme, aptly answered by some quasi-birdsong from the oboe of Gareth Hulse. The several, often sudden, changes of rhythm in this deceptively complicated short movement (well under three minutes long) were, predictably, very well handled by London Winds. I have memories from many years ago of a student performance – not in this College – which dissolved into chaos and helpless laughter in this movement. The Andante is essentially pastoral in tone (and is even shorter). Its opening involves lines in counterpoint for flute and clarinet, played delightfully by Davies and Collins. Bassoonist Robin O’Neill provided a sure-footed ‘drone’ over which flute, clarinet and oboe played Ibertian games. The closing pièce, with its duple time theme circulated amongst the instruments, has the air of a peasant’s dance (though, being by Ibert, these are very sophisticated peasants!) about it. The accelerating coda requests (and certainly received) the audience’s applause.

London Wind’s performance of Samuel Barber’s Summer Music was properly full of warmth and energy – most of its music being effervescent and optimistic. I felt, even more forcefully than I have on previous hearings of the piece, that Barber must have been writing, in part, in response to Mozart’s music for Winds, as in the way, particularly, in which the horn and the oboe seem at times to be pointing in a different direction, as it were, to the other three instruments, embodying a plangent sense of the brevity of summer, of, indeed, the transience of all things , including human joy. Thus summer and autumn are simultaneously evoked – the apprehension of autumn (and beyond) is surely part, after all, of summer’s ‘music’ – and this appears to be the key to the power of Barber’s piece. That power was fully articulated by London Winds.

Nielsen’s Wind Quintet is, of course, one of the finest works ever written for this particular combination of instruments. It has that sense of being a kind of ‘sublime’ conversation, an exchange of ideas and emotions among a small group of friends that one more commonly associates with, say, the great string quartets. It was, I suspect, important that Nielsen knew the members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet and that he wrote with these performers specifically in mind – rather as, say Shakespeare wrote for actors he knew well or as Duke Ellington composed with specific soloists in mind.

In the opening movement (Allegro ben moderato) Robin O’Neill’s bassoon presented the main theme engagingly and lucidly – something important and desirable, since most of what happens in the rest of the movement evolves from this theme. The second movement Menuetto wasn’t perhaps quite as graceful as it might have been (and as it is in London Winds’ own recording of the work on Chandos), though the duets between clarinet and bassoon and between flute and oboe were sensitively played (and were ‘supported’ very well by the horn of Kate Woolley). The closing movement, after its solemn ‘Praeludium’, settled attractively into its beautiful main theme – based on Nielsen’s own chorale tune Min Jesus, lad min Hjerte faa en saaden Smag paa dig (‘My Jesus let my heart love thee’) and the 11 variations thereon: the flute solo, the duet between clarinet and the bassoon and the bassoon solo all being played in especially winning fashion. At the close, after returning to the dignified theme, the quintet’s close in serious (even solemn) beauty – it apt enough that the quintet should have been played at Nielsen’s funeral – brought us to a worlon of how marvelously various music for this particular combination of instruments can be in the work of significant composers – and when played by a top-class ensemble like London Winds.

Glyn Pursglove

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