NY Woodwind Quintet Plays in Finney
Off the Beaten Path: The New York Woodwind Quintet
The New York Woodwind Quintet’s concert on Friday night featured works by Anton Reicha (1770-1836), Pavel Haas (1899-1944) and John Harbison (b.1938), plus an arrangement of Mozart’s Fantasia for Mechanical Organ in F minor, K.608. The concert was an interesting trek off the beaten path, but was not an experience that I am in any hurry to repeat.
The program began with Reicha’s Quintet in D major, Op. 99, No. 3. Reicha was a Czech flutist who, for a time, played in the same orchestra as the young Beethoven. He is principally remembered today as a teacher and theorist; his pupils included Liszt, Berlioz, Gounod and Franck.
This quintet features opportunities for all the players to shine, but it’s also a showcase for the flutist, who is given brief cadenzas in the outer movements, which is unsurprising given that the flute was Reicha’s instrument. At times, it suggests a small-scale flute concerto. The piece is very much in the vein of Mozart, early Beethoven and early Schubert, but without the depth and complexity we get from those masters; it has a mild, melodic charm, but not much more.
Still, I felt as though Reicha’s ideas, though slight, would have had more of a chance to sink in if the players had not taken the entire piece at breakneck speed. The finale, though marked Allegretto, was made into a full-blooded Allegro, just as the slow movement was much more an Andante than an Adagio.
Nevertheless, it was a pleasure simply to hear the quintet play. Like any great ensemble, they gave the illusion of telepathy — though they were five, they functioned as one. They all played with remarkable tonal beauty, but the flutist, Carol Wincenc, deserves to be singled out in this respect. Her rich vibrato made her tone much more full-bodied and powerful than you would expect from a flute, and she handled her more exposed role in the Reicha with exquisite precision.
The second work on the program, Pavel Haas’ Wind Quintet, Op. 10, was a good deal more interesting, though I doubt I’ll be rushing to download it off iTunes any time soon. Haas, who was Czech like Reicha, studied with Janácek, whose music had a greater influence on him than that of any other composer. It is certainly possible to hear Janácek in the piece’s mixture of the mournful and the bitterly sardonic. But harmonically the work also has much in common with the music that was being written outside of Czechoslovakia at this time. The players seemed completely attuned to the piece’s eccentric, angular sensibility and they played with wonderful rhythmic precision, especially in the comical third movement.
After intermission, the players performed horn player William Purvis’ arrangement of Mozart’s Fantasia for Mechanical Organ. This was, hands down, the most impressive piece of music on the program. The complexity of its counterpoint almost rivals Bach, and it has a relentless forward motion and driving intensity that are irresistible. Here, the fast tempo adopted by the players worked well — the piece did not drag. This arrangement was undoubtedly difficult, yet it was totally lacking in soloistic flamboyance. In no other piece was I as aware of the players’ flawless ability to function as a single unit.
Unfortunately, the final item — John Harbison’s Wind Quintet (1978) — was not so impressive. In this piece, Harbison is clearly in love with the texture and sound of wind instruments. His writing features the smoothest legato phrases alternated with sharp, staccato accents, and often both at the same time.
The players captured the sound of the piece beautifully, but even they couldn’t compensate for its lack of tangible, memorable motives. If this piece proves anything, it is that the expressive difference between soft, legato atonality and sharp, staccato atonality is not ultimately that great. Listening to it was the aural equivalent of lying naked on a bed of nails.
As an encore, the quintet offered a short piece by the Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, which was intended to soothe the audience’s nerves after the Harbison; it had the desired effect.