Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
Hannafod Hall, USM-Portland
Feb. 1, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
I tried to get my son interested in playing the French horn but he became a professional fox hunter instead. (The horn was used primarily as a signal in stag hunting, but close enough.)
That family history crossed my mind while listening to a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet Thursday night at Hannaford Hall. Portland Ovations has a way of bringing the world’s finest classical musicians to Portland, and the Berlin Quintet is no exception.
Formed in 1988, it comprises Michael Hasel, flute, Andreas Wittmann, oboe, Walter Seyfarth, clarinet, Marion Reinhard, bassoon, and Fergus McWilliam, horn.
Horn? What is so obviously a brass instrument doing in a woodwind quintet? Apparently, the mellow sound of the horn, rather like that of an alto saxophone, blends so well with woodwinds that it often serves as a transitional bridge between that section and the brass in an orchestra, and perfectly rounds out the complement of voices in a woodwind quintet.
It certainly works for the Berlin Quintet, which began the program with three highly unusual pieces by Mozart, originally composed for mechanical organ, a sort of music box in which the cylinder pins open air valves instead of plucking tuned steel bars.
The transcriptions, by Hasel, follow the originals faithfully, without additions or subtractions —the compositions are multi-voiced—and open a window on little-heard works, written during Mozart’s final year of life. They are fascinating glimpses, since Mozart seldom wrote a pedestrian note, but not up to his usual standards, in spite of a delightful fugue and double fugue that indicate a late study of Bach.
They were followed by the Quintet, Op. 10 (1929) of Pavel Haas who, like his contemporary Erwin Schulhof, ended his life in a German concentration camp. Sounding like a melding of Stravinsky and Kurt Weill, it was more interesting than the Mozart, ending in a fiendish dance and a chorale-like epilog.
If civilization survives into the next century, György Ligeti will be remembered, and played, as one of the great masters of Western music. Certainly his Six Bagatelles, (1953) with their homage to Bartok, are masterpieces, exhibiting brand new sounds, rhythmical patterns, and playfulness, all of which are both unexpected and, once heard, perfectly inevitable. They are also immensely difficult, and one hopes that musicians of the 22nd Century will be as accomplished as those of the Berlin Philharmonic are today.
The Carl Nielsen Quintet, Op. 43 (1922), which ended the program, is as unusual, in its own way, as the Ligeti. Nielson is often considered a Danish folk-artist, like Greig in Norway, but he combines his folkish tunes with avant garde flourishes that sometimes border on the absurd, contrasting with his sadder and more melodic sections,
The work also contains some exquisite solos for bassoon and horn, demonstrating the important place both instruments have among the woodwinds.
After a prolonged standing ovation, the quintet played an encore of Blues by American jazz and classical composer Gunther Shuller.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.