Review: Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Feb. 17, Virginia Commonwealth University

The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, performing in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts series on its farewell US tour, etched in high relief several staples of the wind-quintet repertory and at least one curiosity.

The staples were Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet, one of the many quintets of Anton Reicha (the D major, Op. 91, No. 3) and Paul Hindemith’s “Kleine Kammermusik” (“Little Chamber Music”) No. 2.

The curiosity, at least on this side of the Atlantic, was “Five Sacred and Profane Dances” by Henri Tomasi, a French composer who wrote extensively for winds and brass.

Nielsen’s quintet, dating from 1922, serves as a kind of overture to the late period of the Danish composer’s working life, when his music became increasingly quirky, angular and harmonically adventurous. The quintet, written for his friends in the Copenhagen Wind Quintet, is couched as a conversation among the five instruments – a conversation that grows especially animated as a churchy chorale tune is run through a decidedly un-churchy set of variations.

The Berliners – flutist Michael Hasel, oboist Andreas Wittmann (doubling on English horn), clarinetist Walter Seyfarth, bassoonist Marion Reinhard and French horn player Fergus McWilliam – played the Nielsen with the fluency of long familiarity, liberally garnished with energetic spontaneity.

They conveyed much the same spirit in the Hindemith, one of the composer’s better balances of compositional rigor and good cheer, and in the Tomasi suite, a 1948 opus modeled after and expanding upon Claude Debussy’s “Danses sacrée et profane.”

Tomasi frames his sacred and profane dances with pastoral, wedding and war dances. Weirdly, his wedding dance sounds more eventful, even eruptive, than his war dance – at least it did in this performance.

Reicha was the father of the wind quintet, and a prolific parent, siring no fewer than 24 of them in nine years (1811-20). Op. 91, No. 3, dating from 1818-19, is late-classical in style, sometimes sounding like a miniaturization of a Haydn symphony. That similarity was played up in the Berliners’ exuberantly assertive reading.