Calefax: Oliver Boekhoorn (oboe, cor anglais, tin whistle), Ivar Berix (clarinet), Raaf Hekkema (soprano & alto saxophone), Jelte Althuis (bass clarinet), Alban Wesly (bassoon)
rec. 2017 Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem, Netherlands
PENTATONE PTC5186696 SACD [70:08]
This is the eighteenth disc by Calefax, the Dutch “reed quintet.” Calefax has taken the traditional woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon) and replaced the flute and horn with saxophone and bass clarinet. By reconstituting the ensemble around reed instruments, Calefax achieves a smoother blend of sounds from its five members than a woodwind quintet. But the mixture is not so unified as the sounds of a string quartet, so the interplay of different sonorities remains an important aspect of the Calefax sound.
Calefax builds upon the rich Dutch tradition of splendid wind playing. The novelty of the ensemble means that Calefax performs arrangements of work written for other instrumentations (keyboard, vocal ensemble, violin), typically accomplished with great skill and imagination by Calefax members. Reviews of Calefax discs often include cautions that the performances are “not for purists,” which I suppose is fair warning to those allergic to the idea of arrangements, but is off the mark if you are a purist for brilliant wind playing and intelligent musicianship.
The present disc may be best heard as a showcase for the range of Calefax’s talents. While I am normally suspicious of arrangements, I have learned to relax my purist instincts when it comes to Calefax. The best arrangements let us hear familiar music with new ears, as our attention is drawn to features which we may not notice in its original form. Let me underscore the point that Calefax is serious about its music: this is not Flight of the Bumblebee for the accordion. At its best, Calefax produces a kind of richly hued, technicolor chamber music, transforming our understanding of the relationships among musical voices. Listen to Calefax’s ability to play sostenuto notes where pianists struggle to make the music heard.
Hidden Gems is fun. The Locatelli provides a brightly ceremonious welcome. Corelli’s La Folia variations is pretty well known to be called hidden. Calefax removes any trace of its origins as a violin sonata, but makes the piece a very exciting ride. César Franck’s organ piece combines a slightly unsettling waltz with a sinuous fugue. The Satie is static and languorous, if a little dull, but Janacek’s youthful and conservative Zdenka Variations are lively, with wonderfully fluctuating sonorities. Nico Muhly’s Look for Me offers a calm but insistent melody, increasingly punctuated by harsh chords. There are many encore pieces, ranging from Nina Simone to Josquin des Prez and a bubbly rondo by the German Johann Wilhelm Wilms. Wilms, like Locatelli, became Dutch.
Calefax has also recorded several more focused projects, including four that continue to bring me great pleasure. Their recording of fourteen of the preludes and fugues from Shostakovich’s Op.87 is vivid and revelatory (review). A disc of Rameau pieces written for the harpsichord is flashy and exciting (review). Bach’s Goldberg variations is quite wonderfully vigorous. Calefax’s most audacious project may be its brilliant arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for player piano, which daringly returns this complex music which Nancarrow wrote for piano rolls to the realm of living musicians.
Calefax has had several recording homes. Hidden Gems receives the benefits of a splendid Pentatone production.
Pietro Antonio LOCATELLI (1695-1764)
Introduzione teatrale Op.4, no. 1 [5:33]
Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
Variations on La Folia Op.5, no. 12 [10:48]
Nina SIMONE (1933-2003)
For all we know [4:04]
Carlo GESUALDO (1566-1613)
Tu m’uccidi, o crudele [2:24]
Nico HUHLY (1981)
Look for me [6:00]
Er Quan Ying Yue [4:58]
César FRANCK (1822-1890]
Prélude, fugue et variation [9:11]
Johann Wilhelm WILMS (1772-1847)
Rondo from Sinfonia a grand orchestre no. 4 [5:51]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Danses de travers [5:38]
Ron FORD (1959)
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Zdenka variations [8:44]
Josquin DES PREZ (CA. 1450-1521)
Nymphes des bois [4:36]