I listen to so much string quartet music, I've been taking occasional breaks from it by exploring some wonderful woodwind quintet music. This new disc from Avi caught my eye, not only from a repertoire perspective, but from the cover art. I instantly recognized 2 members of the quintet, Marc Gruber (horn) and Theo Plath (bassoon), as being principals in the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, whose wonderful concerts I watch on YouTube all the time.
The Monet Quintett was established in 2014, comprised of former members of the German National Youth Orchestra. I'll start off saying right up front they play with an unanimity of approach and uniform musical purpose which make them unique. And extraordinary. It is apparent they know each other, musically, very well. And based upon this fabulous recording, they simply redefine the art of woodwind quintet playing.
There is a glowing, golden blend to their sound which is simply gorgeous. At the same time, there is an individuality of color and character to soloistic passages which brings endless variety and life to their music-making. As a group, they play as one - very much like a superb string quartet. They vary their tonal color, dynamics and vibrato as a unified unit (as the music dictates) in a way which is remarkable. A good example of this is exemplified in the exceptional flute playing of Anissa Baniahmad, who varies her tone (and vibrato) from sparkling and vibrant in soloistic passages to a more rounded sound to blend perfectly with the clarinet and horn.
This group ushers in a new generation of woodwind quintet playing. Their playing is, quite simply, dazzling.
On this wonderful CD - their debut album - we are treated to 4 of the best works in the genre. Ranging from the Romantic to the Contemporary, this intelligently chosen program provides endless variety, interest and musical enrichment for the listener. And offers a real opportunity to showcase this group's abilities.
The concert opens with a terrific contemporary piece (1997), Frenglish Suite by Richard Dubugnon. I was not familiar with this Swiss composer, but a glance at my recent orders reminded me a disc of his orchestral music (on BIS) is on the way. So I am thrilled I will be hearing more of his music! His woodwind quintet is a delight from beginning to end. Laid out in a single movement lasting nearly 15 minutes, it contains several distinct sections, including a central Theme and Variations followed by a Lullaby. Its endless variety is captivating and extremely entertaining, with some jazzy elements alternating with the lyrical and whimsical, along with plenty of memorable tunes. There are even hints of Stravinsky here and there, which made me smile. It's a fantastic work, superbly written (and orchestrated) for the genre, and the Monet Quintett plays it with sparkling vitality and charm.
Next comes the piece widely considered to be the granddaddy of modern woodwind quintet music - Paul Taffanel's well-known Wind Quintet. It is instantly more richly Romantic (and slightly old-fashioned) after the more modern Dubugnon. But with its imaginative scoring and originality for its time, its place in the repertoire is assured and well deserved. This reading of it is positively delightful; the Monet's endless variety of tonal and dynamic shadings brings much freshness to the piece. It's as enjoyable here as I've ever heard it played.
A rarity follows - although this is my second encounter with it in recent months: the Woodwind Quintet by Gustav Holst, notable for its surprising, distinctive hints of Richard Strauss. It's more than just a curiosity; I have recently discovered a whole other side of Holst via a wonderful disc of his chamber music played by Ensemble Arabesques on the FARAO label. (Please see my review elsewhere on this blog.) Comparing the two recordings of his Quintet was interesting. While both are terrific, there are a few minor observations to be made. There is no denying the golden blend and perfection of ensemble of the Monet Quintett are most impressive. They also excel at vivid characterization of each varied section, along with a sweetly singing lyricism which is most winning. The Ensemble Arabesques are just a touch more lively and energetic, but surprisingly slightly less refined overall. (The clarinet, for example, has moments of insecurity in the high range.) Both are equally treasurable and I wouldn't want to be without either.
Closing out the concert is the enormously pleasing 1st Wind Quintet of Jean Francaix. This piece is so spectacular I regret it isn't recorded more often. However, the reason why is clear - it is fiendishly difficult to play and I suspect not many groups can conquer it. As a matter of fact, Francaix said he "set out with a goal of attaining a 'high level of difficulty'". Indeed; it was not performed for several years due to the extreme amount of practice required to surmount its "unplayable" virtuosity for all 5 instruments. But you'd never know any of that while listening to the Monet Quintett play it. It rolls off the fingers with effortless bravura. The Berlin Phil Quintet (on BIS) does an excellent job as well, although theirs is a bit more extrovert and sounds more obviously "difficult" to play. But there is no denying their reading is positively thrilling. However, the extra refinement and effortlessness of the Monet, combined with the atmospheric beauty of it, are breathtaking - and certainly no less exciting.
I've been listening to a lot of this music lately, most in collections and box sets played by the somewhat tepid Les Vents Francais (Warner) and the excellent Berlin Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet (BIS). The Les Vents Francais is let down somewhat by Warner's lackluster recorded sound - variable from session to session, ranging in severity, of a mostly forward and slightly edgy, rather 2-dimensional presentation. Their playing is certainly good but refined and lacking a bit of characterization and sheer involvement. BIS provides the Berlin Quintet excellent recorded sound, consistent from disc to disc. And their playing is more crisply articulated and engaging. It's amazing the difference a good recording engineer makes.
But neither group can match the Monet Quintett for all the characteristics noted above. As good as the Berlin Phil group is, there is a polish to the Monet which sets them apart, above and beyond any group of its type that I have encountered. And Avi, in coproduction with SWR2, provides them the best recorded sound of all. Daringly, they are recorded in a large acoustic, affording them an almost symphonic grandeur with regard to color, blend and atmosphere. But there is also a 3-dimensional presence which virtually transports the listener to the recording location with the best seat in the house. The horn is naturally balanced, never overpowering the rest (as is often the case), and each individual instrument is tangibly placed in space. Overall, the sound is open, dynamic, lively and colorful, naturally distanced within a gorgeously atmospheric acoustic. It just doesn't get any better than this.
Avi's production is absolutely first class in every way, and not just with the excellent recorded sound. There is also a lavish booklet, complete with glossy photos of the group in amusing, staged poses, plus useful information about the quintet and its members. There is also extensive information about the composers and the music. Overall, this is one of the most exciting new releases I've encountered in quite some time. I enjoyed it immensely.