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Aho: Wind Quintets 1 & 2 - Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Aho: Wind Quintets 1 & 2 - Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

BIS  BIS-2176

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber


Aho: Wind Quintets 1 & 2

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
Michael Hasel (flute)
Andreas Wittmann (oboe)
Walter Seyfarth (clarinet)
Fergus McWilliam (horn)
Marion Reinhard (bassoon)


With 17 symphonies in his list of works, not to mention operas and concertos, it is easy to forget that Kalevi Aho also composes chamber music. He has in fact written some ten quintets alone, for various combinations of instrument. Two are ‘normal’ wind quintets and it is these that the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet (BPWQ) perform on the present disc. The ensemble came into contact with the Finnish composer’s Wind Quintet No. 1 in 2010, and was immediately struck by the qualities and challenges of the score. The composer himself has described the difficulties in writing for wind quintet, in terms of achieving a balanced and homogeneous sound and soft dynamics. In his first quintet he therefore included unison passages and sometimes even reduced the music to one or two parts. In the fourth movement he also added a spatial dimension by having all of the players perform from offstage at some point.

Having played the work a number of times on their many tours, the BPWQ decided to commission their own quintet, and in 2015 they gave the first performance of Wind Quintet No. 2. This time, Aho found another solution to the inherent difficulties –by making the flutist and oboist change instruments to piccolo or alto flute and cor anglais at various points, the piece achieves an even wider spectrum of unusual and innovative tone colours and moods.

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Review by Mark Werlin - April 26, 2019

Of all the classical music genres, contemporary chamber music may be the most challenging for performers and the least appreciated by audiences. Though there certainly exists a corps of adventurous listeners — a smaller subset of chamber music lovers — advocating on behalf of new chamber music can feel like an uphill battle.

For its practitioners, the rehearsal and performance of new classical music is a project built without a foundation: there’s a plan (the score), but few (or no) prior performances against which to assess and develop an interpretation. A string quartet who choose to play one of the Haydn Op. 20 quartets have the benefit of dozens of recordings and a library of critical writings; the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, who commissioned Kalevi Aho to write his second Wind Quintet, had to rely on their past experience playing Aho's music, and their individual and collective intuitions of the movement of the new work out of the confines of the score into the physical space of concert and recorded performances.

Both of the works on this new release were commissions, the lifeblood of the working contemporary composer. Wind Quintet No. 1 was first performed by players from the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra less than 3 months after the work’s composition; apparently Mr. Aho is no stranger to deadlines! Aho’s own liner notes describe the composition’s four movements, the first three of which are structured in contrasting halves — broad contrasts in tempo and in the character of the material. Its plaintive lyricism and dancelike rhythms can be grasped by listeners whose experience of new music might not extend past Berg or Bartok. Just because it's new doesn't mean it's unapproachable.

Aho introduces the final movement with a duet of the low instruments, the French horn and bassoon, that establishes an elegiac mood; the high winds, the flute, oboe and clarinet respond, initially as if from afar; the players moving slowly and gradually changing positions. Careful microphone placement and mixing captures the shifting instruments in the recorded soundstage.

The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet are champions of Kalevi Aho’s music; they commissioned his Quintet No. 2 after giving 20 performances of the No. 1. That grounding in the composer’s idiom not only lends more depth to their interpretation of the earlier work, but allows the listener hearing these pieces for the first time (as I did) to experience them not only as “new”, but also as established repertoire.

The Quintet No. 2 shares a similar approach with its predecessor to grouping the instruments in twos and threes, a strategy that heightens the contrast of texture, timbre and range. The long first movement’s somber themes and slow, sustained lines gradually mutate into voices raised in distress, then falling away, conveying the uneasy sense of leaving a familiar landscape behind.

At more than 30 minutes’ length in this performance, the Quintet No. 2 has symphonic breadth and scope. The small size of the ensemble belies the scale of the performance; with the flute trebling on piccolo and alto flute, and the oboe doubling on cor anglais, there is a representation of the range of a full orchestra, with all the clarity of individual voices.

The October 2014 recording session at the Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany (Quintet No. 1) and the October 2016 session at Traumton Studios, Berlin-Spandau, Germany (Quintet No. 2) project similar sound images, making the whole presentation feel like a unified concert in a real acoustic. The album was expertly recorded in 24/96 by producer Robert Suff and engineer Stephan Reh.

BIS has a long history of recording Kalevi Aho, and this new addition to their catalogue will be of special interest those familiar with Aho's music through Aho: Saxophone Concerto, Quintet for Winds and Strings - Paulsson / Storgårds and Nielsen, Aho: Clarinet Concertos - Fröst, Vänskä.

Copyright © 2019 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net

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