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!



William Safford said...

I heard the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet in 2009. It was the finest wind quintet concert that I have ever attended, and I have heard most of the great ones live (at least the ones that perform in the U.S.). My experience was very much like yours, except that the venue was more resonant than what you describe. They made excellent use of the superior acoustics.

For me, there are two separate possible approaches to wind quintet playing: Teutonic and Gallic. Teutonic is just as you described: the blending of the five voices into one resonant, homogeneous whole. The other approach is Gallic: five individual bright colors. Each has its merits.

This quintet is the apotheosis of blending. The balance, the matching of tone colors, the consistency and delicacy of phrasing, and much more, all make for a truly outstanding performance.

BTW, I really like your list of characteristics of a top-notch wind quintet. I am going to keep those in mind in my next wind quintet rehearsal. Thank you.

Oh, and I got a chuckle out of the gaffe on the concert program. Over the weekend I carefully proofread galleys for the programs for an upcoming concert of a local chamber music series, of which I am past President. That error is just the sort of thing that we do our best not to do. A couple weeks ago, I had to delete "quartet" and insert "quintet" in the galley for a press release for an upcoming reed quintet concert.

Anonymous said...

And fantastic as they are, they are not even the principal players in their respective sections of the Berlin Philharmonic