Saturday, February 16, 2019

Characteristics of a top-notch wind quintet

Today I was blown away by a recital by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet presented by Chamber Music Columbus in the Southern Theatre.

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
The touring quintet performed the following works, with an intermission in the middle: 

Mozart: Three Fantasies for mechanical organ
Haas: Quintet, Op. 10
Ligeti: Six Bagatelles
Nielsen: Quintet for Winds, Op. 43

The Southern Theatre acoustics generally enable a very present sound, but the quality is dry (with no reverberation).  A lesser ensemble would have struggled to sound good in such a dry acoustic, but not this group.  These players knew how to skillfully finish each phrase in a way that made up for the dryness of the hall, almost as if they created their own resonance by the way they tapered the ends of notes and phrases.

It's safe to say that I've never heard a wind quintet of this quality before, not even on recordings.  What a tall order it is to successfully blend such an ill-matched group of instruments, yet this group pulled it off.  The instruments matched as well as they possibly could have; the level of homogeneity was astonishing.

How did they accomplish this?  To me it seemed that each player willingly and easily "took the back seat", only springing forth with extra volume when called upon by a solo line.  Much of the time, the entire ensemble took the back seat, with the blend...the perfect blend.....being the top priority.  No one tried to stand out as a virtuoso - there was no competition for the spotlight.  If one player did have a prominent line, the other four players totally accommodated that player as if their lives depended on it.  Consideration was the name of the game.

Never was the sound of any individual player forced.  Each player was a master of the pianissimo.  And when all five of them played pianissimo together, the sound was not five times louder than one instrument playing pianissimo - it was true pianissimo.  It may well have been the quietest wind playing I've ever heard.  Yet when it was time to shine, each individual rose to the occasion.  I thought the horn player had the smallest sound I'd ever heard UNTIL it was his turn to take a solo, and then I found out how wrong I was - he was also a brilliant and commanding soloist!

The audience expected a great performance.....they're from the Berlin Phil after all.  But I think everyone was amazed at just how impressive they were!  During the concert I found myself mentally listing the outstanding characteristics of the ensemble, and here's what I came up with:

Characteristics of a top-notch wind quintet

1. Blending of sound is prioritized, which often means that the louder instruments back off.
2. Ensemble (playing perfectly together) is prioritized at all times.
3. Pianissimo playing is highly refined, with perfect intonation.
4. Tremendous attention is paid to note endings and phrase endings.
5. Each player is constantly considerate of the other players' parts.
6. The individual sounds are never forced.

Today's concert program with a mistake on the cover!