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S & H Concert Review

Serenata Winds, Purcell Room, 12th April 2002 (CN)


Ibert: Trois Pieces Breves
Damase: Dix-Sept Variations
Nielsen: Quintet for Wind Instruments op.22
Hindemith: Kleine Kammermusik fur funf Blaser op.24 no.2
Francaix: Quatuor
Parker: Mississippi Five

Wind music experienced a renaissance during the 20th Century, with composers such as Stravinsky turning away from the lush Romantic strings and looking towards other mediums. For anyone looking to introduce themselves to the chamber music written during that period, this would have been the concert. The programme which, despite being dominated by 20th Century French composers, presented some real stalwarts of the genre, notably the Nielsen in the first half – which was inspired by the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante - and the Hindemith in the second. Also in the programme was the jazz-influenced ‘Mississippi Five’ by Jim Parker, a terrific piece that should be a standard in any quintet’s repertoire.

Unfortunately, the performance did not match the promise and I found this concert a real disappointment. Problems may have arisen from an apparent last minute change of oboist but I am reluctant to suggest that this was the root of their difficulties.

Although as individuals Serenata were certainly in control of their instruments and played well in solos, they paid no heed to each other: they had no control over the quintet they created, technically or musically.

The first half was continuously marred by poor intonation, a lack of ensemble and particularly a lack of thought. These issues may have been aggravated by their unusual seating arrangement. From left to right they sat bassoon, oboe, flute, clarinet, French horn. This had several effects: the bass instruments were nearest the audience meaning that they had to work extra hard to keep below the melody – a real problem in the Damase, the double reeds were sat together, making their timbre quite heavy and dominant and the flute’s sound was not directed at the audience but at the wings of the stage and so was often lost.

Technical issues aside, musically the pieces felt under-rehearsed. One obvious trait of this was the constant tempo fluctuations in every piece, particularly noticeable in the first movement of the Nielsen when the repeated first section was markedly faster the second time round. Even basic notations within the music were ignored and sometimes the music itself was inexplicably changed – such as the first movement of the Ibert, where the tune was played as straight quavers rather than the notated triplets. The pieces felt like studies, and difficult ones at that.

However, this was – to use a cliché – a concert of two halves. The Hindemith, Francaix and Parker were of a different standard and comparatively good. Here, the quintet gained confidence and played well – crafting some magical moments - but there was never a sense of direction or conviction about what they were playing or a sense of trying to purvey something new and exciting.

Yes, their capability as a quintet was finally established but this made the quality of the first half especially unforgivable. A quintet is not an easy ensemble to fashion; unfortunately that was more than apparent at this concert.

Christa Norton

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