London Winds is an ensemble of some of Britain’s finest wind players that was founded by clarinetist Michael Collins in 1988. Collins still serves as director and clarinetist; and the other members are Philippa Davies (flute and piccolo), Gareth Hulse (oboe and English horn), Richard Watkins (horn), Robin O’Neill (bassoon), and Peter Sparks (bass clarinet). At the end of next week, this group will be featured on a new album released by Chandos that provides a survey of twentieth-century chamber works for winds. (For those who cannot wait, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders.) Five composers are each represented by a single piece. Four of the works are for the standard woodwind quintet. These are the set of six bagatelles by György Ligeti, Samuel Barber’s Opus 31 “Summer Music,” Carl Nielsen’s Opus 13 quintet, and Paul Hindemith’s “Kleine Kammermusik,” his Opus 24, Number 2. The final selection is Leoš Janáček’s “Mládí” (youth), which is a sextet with the sixth part for bass clarinet.
All of these pieces are likely to be familiar to most wind players, meaning that at least some of them will be recognizable to those who are friends of wind players. What is particularly striking, however, is the extent to which many of these composers turned to the instruments of the wind family with a sense of wit. This is particularly evident in the Hindemith quintet, which has a playful streak in each of its four movements, with each of those streaks heading in a different direction. However, Hindemith’s striking coup comes in the second movement in which a single chord is doggedly and almost incessantly repeated. However, the repetitions are almost barely noticeable, because, while the pitch classes are static, the instruments playing them keep changing.
Ligeti’s bagatelles, on the other hand, amount to a playful exercise in repurposing. The six bagatelles are instrumental versions of music originally written for piano, the third, fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth movements of Musica ricercata (researched music), a cycle of eleven short pieces for solo piano, each of which uses more pitch classes than its predecessor. Thus, the first movement is an exercise in rhythm involving a single pitch jumping around most of the octaves of the piano keyboard and concluding with a different pitch serving as the “punch line.” The second piece alternates between two pitch classes, concluding also with a new “punch line” pitch class, continuing in this manner until the eleventh movement, where all twelve pitch classes come into play.
Because the bagatelles are based on selected movements, this underlying game is less evident. Their overall organization tends to alternate between overt prankishness and more introspective seriousness. However, even when he is ostensibly being serious, Ligeti tends toward some rather outrageous instrumentation decisions, almost as if there is a tongue-in-cheek quality to his “serious” behavior. Nielsen’s wit, on the other hand, is gentler and almost homespun. The opening movement is almost like a conversation among five elderly people inclined to repeat themselves just to avoid the intrusion of silence and determined to keep things polite (with the exception of one highly intrusive dissonance).
In this respect the other prevalent rhetoric on this album is one of nostalgia. “Summer Music” was composed between 1955 and 1956, by which time Barber had achieved a relatively established position as a twentieth-century American composer. However, the score, which is his only chamber composition for winds, involved drawing upon his earlier works, some of which were never published. The result is a totally different evocation of summer than can be found in his Opus 24 “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” However, it can also be taken as a reply to that earlier piece, substituting his own recollections for those of James Agee’s text in the Opus 24. Similarly, “Mládí” is a reflection of youthful days by a composer just entering his seventies; and there is a comforting quality that he can look back across all of those years with few feelings of regret.
All five of the compositions on this recording are given technically sound and rhetorically expressive interpretations. Chamber music for winds tends to be distinguished by the ways in which composers exploit the contrasting sonorities of the different instruments. The London Winds appear to be highly skilled in listening to each other, meaning that they always successfully tease out just the right levels of balance among their respective instruments.
Those familiar with these pieces should enjoy encountering them again as “old friends” on this album, while other listeners should find the recording a delightful journey of discovery.