Wigmore Mondays – Ensemble Marsyas and Kristian Bezuidenhout

Ensemble Marsyas, Kristian Bezuidenhout (left)

Ensemble Marsyas (Josep Domènech Lafont (oboe), Nicola Boud (clarinet), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Peter Whelan (bassoon), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 11 July 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07jhwk7

Available until 10 August

What’s the music?

Mozart Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major, K451 (1784) (23 minutes)

Beethoven Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major, Op.16 (1796) (24 minutes)

Spotify

Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Ensemble Marsyas have not recorded this music, but in case the broadcast link does not work the Spotify playlist below gives alternative versions from pianist Stephen Hough and the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, available on BIS:

About the music

Mozart held his quintet in extremely high regard in comparison with the rest of his output. Its first performance was part of a marathon concert that also featured the Linz and Haffner symphonies, but all the composer could talk about was his satisfaction with the new quintet. It does mark something of a departure, being the first work for the combination of piano and wind quartet, and the writing for both is superb.

In some of his early works Beethoven was consciously using instrumental combinations already mastered by Mozart, and applying his own stamp to them. The early string trios, piano trios and this quintet for piano and wind are all examples. Typically he does things his way in all of them, and in the quintet the piano really does take the lead, perhaps betraying the fact that Beethoven was about to publish his first two piano concertos.

It is an ambitious work, with a particularly sizeable first movement, and in the second Beethoven allows each of the wind instruments a chance to shine in a solo capacity.

Performance verdict

There is something about the sonic combination of piano and wind that is enormously comforting, either as late night / early morning listening or in a concert experience. To say it was invented by Mozart may be stretching things a little far, but it is seemingly the earliest work to put the combined forces together, followed by Beethoven in his early ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mode.

The two make a good concert coupling, especially when the performances are as good as these. Kristian Bezuidenhout is a musician who easily dispels the fears among some concert goers that the fortepiano is a tinny instrument of little sound quality. He gets his phrases to really sing, especially in quiet moments, and throughout the more graceful parts of both pieces he played several melting passages of music.

The wind players were every bit as good, led more obviously in the Mozart by oboist dfgd or in the Beethoven by the bright timbre of clarinettist Nicola Loud. Alec Frank-Gemmill wrestled manfully with the difficulties of natural horn to produce a lovely sound, while on occasion the bassoon of Peter Whelan had a timbre resembling a baritone saxophone. When all four played together it was a beautiful sound, sometimes rough around the edges in a most appealing way, reminding us that there is such a thing as over-polished performance!

One of the most enjoyable Wigmore concerts of the 2015-16 season, closing the series with a flourish and well worth hearing. As a postscript, it is worth noting Ensemble Marsyas were formed as a result of relationships formed in the European Union Baroque Orchestra. Would such a thing be possible after the UK leaves the union? Very unlikely!

What should I listen out for?

Mozart

2:02 – a slow introduction, where the tonality of E flat is established – but where the sonorities of the wind instruments are also made clear, as though Mozart were introducing the new idea to his audience. Then at 4:08 we hear the start of the allegro, introduced by the piano then passed over to the winds. This is a genial piece of music, like listening to a conversation between musical friends, and Mozart develops his ideas comprehensively, a good example occurring at 8:44.

12:05 the slow movement, a beautifully restrained introduction followed by solos for clarinet, oboe and then horn, Mozart giving each of the treble instruments their chance to shine. The fortepiano – reclaiming melody at 13:28 – is very much part of the ensemble. The horn gets a bigger solo at 16:08, part of a central section deeper on feeling.

19:37 – the fortepiano begins the finale with a detached and relatively simple theme that gains more colour when the woodwind repeat it. This tune becomes more of an earworm as the piece progresses.

Beethoven

28:15 – a subdued fanfare signals the beginning of the quintet from the wind, answered by a profound statement on the piano. This is a slow introduction, and a grand one at that, before the fast movement proper gets underway at 30:51, with some lively exchanges between the instruments and a number of tricky runs on the piano.

41:02 – a gentle start to the first movement, the fortepiano playing a figure that sounds like a lullaby. The sonorous tones of the wind instruments are soon in play with the same material, before solos from all four. The piano returns to the lullaby material at 45:12.

47:17 – the finale starts with a tune on the piano that you know is going to be whistled by the end of the concert! It is a perky and optimistic melody, often assigned to the bright clarinet timbre. When piecked up by the wind its dance character comes through, and for the rest of the movement it is developed and repeated.

Further listening

Not too long after the pieces in this concert were composed and performed, Rossini wrote six sonatas for string ensemble, published in 1804. Around twenty years later, Frédéric Berr thought these would be suitable when arranged for wind quartet – and so it proved. They make a very enjoyable hour’s music, making absolutely no demands on the listener!

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