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Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Berlin Phil Winds Blow Beautifully in Texas!


Last week the Berlin Philharmonic, under guest conductor Ton Koopman, was presenting its regular subscription concerts on its home turf. Meantime, several thousand miles away, in the McCullough Theatre at the University of Texas in Austin, the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet (BPWQ) was also giving a concert under the auspices of Texas Performing Arts. How is that possible? Well, it helps that the Berlin Philharmonic is an orchestra of 124 players, not all of whom are required for every concert.

It should also be noted that the Berlin Philharmonic is one of the world’s great orchestras and to become a member of it may be every musician’s dream. The players are among the highest paid of any orchestra in the world and their chief conductors have included the likes of Nikisch, Furtwängler, Karajan, Abbado and Rattle. Not surprisingly, the BPWQ turned out to be a superb ensemble altogether worthy of its distinguished parent. And yet – and this is proof of the depth of the talent in the Berlin Philharmonic – not one member of the BPWQ is a principal player.

The Berlin Philharmonic, like the Vienna Philharmonic, has been an exclusive men’s club for almost its entire existence. Karajan tried to break this questionable tradition in 1985 when he insisted on hiring Sabine Meyer as principal clarinet. The ensuing row poisoned one of the great conductor-orchestra partnerships in musical history. Karajan lost that battle but gradually the orchestra had to bend to the prevailing winds – pun intended - and admit some female players. The current membership of the BPWQ provides an excellent example in bassoonist Marion Reinhard. But she remains the only female wind or brass player in the orchestra. For the record, Marion Reinhard is a recent addition to the BPWQ and the only change in personnel the group has had in 21 years. Henning Trog was the original bassoonist; he recently retired to concentrate on teaching.

One further point on the subject of orchestral demographics. For much of its history, the Berlin Philharmonic was not only a 'men’s club,' but a German men’s club. That peculiarity also began to change during the Karajan years. The big breakthrough was the hiring of James Galway as principal flute in the 1970s. Again, the membership of the BPWQ provides a current example. Horn player Fergus McWilliam, a member of the orchestra since 1985, was born in Scotland and grew up in Canada.

From Middling Mozart to Riveting Reicha!

The Austin concert opened with Mozart’s Fantasy in F minor K. 608, arranged for wind quintet by the BPWQ’s flutist Michael Hasel. This rather strange, late Mozart piece was composed for a contraption called a mechanical organ - more like a music box than a pipe organ. Of necessity, then, if it is going to be played today it must be in some sort of transcription. Unfortunately, Hasel’s transcription didn’t sound especially comfortable for the players. There were also some intonation issues that made the performance somewhat unsettling.

From the first bars of Anton Reicha’s Quintet in D major Op. 91 No. 3, however, it was obvious that all was well again with the BPWQ.

Reicha was one of Beethoven’s contemporaries and while not in the same class as a composer, nonetheless contributed a great deal to the development of wind playing and wind composition. He wrote dozens of wind quintets and while the melodies are seldom memorable, Reicha was endlessly imaginative in his writing for each of the players. What’s more he had a sense of humor. It would be hard to imagine the wind solos in the Rossini operas if Reicha had not shown the way.

A Classic Bit of Barber for Composer's Centenary Year

After intermission, the BPWQ honored their audience with one of the masterpieces of American wind repertoire: Samuel Barber’s Summer Music Op. 31. This performance also reminded us that Barber would have been 100 years old this year. Summer Music was intended to be evocative of summer – from the opening bars we hear birds twittering – and it is in that abstract impressionist style that is so characteristic of Barber. There is also a touch of Delius in this largely pastoral piece. It is also a fine example of how to use woodwinds in various combinations to create a vast range of colors.

Virtuosic Nielsen Quintet Highlight of the Evening

The highlight of the concert was undoubtedly the BPWQ’s performance of Carl Nielsen’s Quintet Op. 43. This is a work of great beauty and originality and the BPWQ played it to near-perfection. There is nothing conventional about any mature work of Carl Nielsen. He loves to drop in unexpected fortissimos or rude sounds. Sometimes it is funny, but other times disturbing.

The most substantial and memorable part of the Quintet is the last movement. It begins with several dissonant chords repeated in slow motion, and there is a new color added to the texture. The oboist has switched to the darker cor anglais. Then follows a theme and a set of variations. The theme is a lovely chorale melody written by Nielsen himself, six years earlier, for a Lutheran hymn. Many of the variations take the form of elaborate cadenzas for different winds. For example, variation 5 features an aggressive and almost jazzy clarinet 'riff' accompanied only by the bassoon acting as a sort of straight man (or woman!). In variation 7, the bassoon gets its turn and then the horn, in variation 9. To end the movement and the piece, Nielsen gives us a reprise of the chorale theme. Another Nielsen peculiarity: for its first statement the theme was in 3/4 but now it's in 4/4!

It would be difficult to single out any of the players in a piece which demands so much from each of them; they were all wonderful. But let me give a special tip of the hat to horn player Fergus McWilliam for the sheer range and subtlety of his playing.

Thanks also to Mr. McWilliam for later explaining to us what Marion Reinhard was doing with her bassoon at the end of the Nielsen. To wit: toward the very end of the reprise of the theme, Ms. Reinhard grabbed what looked like a piece of curved plastic and shoved it into the bell of her instrument. According to Mr. McWilliam, it was actually a piece of a child’s plastic baseball bat. And the reason for doing this? The plastic tube extended the range of the bassoon by making its air column longer.

There is an important low A at the very end of the Nielsen which is simply not playable on most instruments, even though many composers from Wagner on have insisted on using this note. One solution, sometimes used, is to replace the top part of the bassoon - called the bell joint – with a longer one, just to get this note. Ms. Reinhard opted for an alternative, equally effective and ultimately 'entertaining' solution.

Winding Down with Americana

After such a fine performance of the Nielsen, the audience demanded more, and the BPWQ was only too happy to oblige. For their first encore they again dipped into their Americana repertoire. This time it was a two minute American Folk Suite by Kazimierz Machala. Bits of Camptown Races, Yankee Doodle and the like played with great verve. The second encore was a lovely Gershwin-like Blues by American composer/conductor Gunther Schuller.

One day it would be great to see the entire Berlin Philharmonic in Austin; in the meantime we can be glad we heard the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet.

For those Wanting More…

The BPWQ has made over fifteen CDs for the BIS label over the past seventeen years and they are excellent. You can find the Barber, Machala and Schuller on BIS-CD-952 and the Nielsen on BIS-CD-1332. There is another recording of the Nielsen Quintet by different wind players of the Berlin Philharmonic, past and present, on EMI Classics 3-94421-2. This CD also contains performances of Nielsen’s Flute Concerto and Clarinet Concerto featuring Emmanuel Pahud and Sabine Meyer respectively, with Simon Rattle conducting.


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