Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet impeccable at the Davenport Theatre

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, February 26, 2014, The Paul Davenport Theatre

Colour and timbre, so varied and vibrant, distinguish the woodwind quintet as a special entity among ensembles made up of a subset of orchestral instruments. Reedy, rich, warm, cool, mellow, titillating – so many shades of tone, such a wide range of expressive possibility. The woodwind quintet as we know it evolved from a larger combination consisting of pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoon, but with the development of better, sturdier instruments, composers such as Haydn and Mozart began to investigate more compact groupings. Music for winds enjoyed great popularity from the time of Emperor Joseph II in the late eighteenth century through the middle of the nineteenth, and then fell by the wayside until a renewal of interest surfaced in the twentieth century.

Since 1988, the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet has enchanted and excited listeners at home and abroad. Formed during the period of Herbert von Karajan’s Artistic Direction, the group is still comprised of four of the original members (only the first bassoonist has been replaced). The quintet, thus, “breathes” as one, and has a feel for the gamut of literature available to it.


The Quintet brought a program that emphasized modern material. However, the concert began with an arrangement of Mozart’s (1756-1791) Fantasy in F minor, KV 608 for “eine Orgelwalze.” While the Quintet normally resists playing transcriptions, the rationale for this one is obvious: Mozart composed this Fantasy for mechanical organ, a clockwork organ coupled to a clock mechanism, for a museum of curiosities – for an instrument that can scarcely, if at all, be found today. It is astonishing to consider the elegance and intrinsic merit in this work for a toy Mozart did not care for. The Berlin Quintet, in their very loyal reconstruction, found an almost sacred quality in the various contrapuntal elements of this odd, but perfect, gem.

The members of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet quite rightly believe in bringing a wide repertoire to the concert stage. Their presentation of Kvintetto by Kalevi Aho (b. 1949) illustrates this point. Aho, educated principally at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, also studied with one of the important representatives of mid-twentieth century composition – Boris Blacher, a composer with the distinction of bearing the epithet “degenerate musician” during the Nazi era. Aho himself has journeyed through many stylistic transformations. The Kvintetto was composed in 2006, and explores the tonal and dynamic range available to five wind players.

The Quintet, with its wonderful suppleness, its technical wizardry, its gift for revealing the emotional heart of a piece, made a wonderful program choice in performing Summer Music Op. 31 by Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Barber received a commission from the Chamber Music Society of Detroit in 1956 and took on the assignment during an interlude in his work on the opera Vanessa. Transferring his energy to the quintet provided relief, release, and above all, an opportunity for Barber to understand the capacities of highly skilled wind musicians. Summer Music evokes the spirit of the season with its range of lyricism and drama.

Carl Nielsen (1865-1931), like Barber, composed a quintet for a particular set of musicians. The Quintet in A major Op. 43 (1922) was written with the members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet in mind. The work succeeds on many levels – it reveals Nielsen’s understanding of the personalities of his friends, the artists; it links the relationship between nature and the natural sounds of wind instruments.

The players of the Berlin Wind Quintet, Michael Hasel, flute; Andreas Wittman, oboe; Walter Seyfarth, clarinet; Fergus McWilliam, horn; Marion Reinhard, bassoon, captured the delicate breezes, the humanity, the excitement found in music for a special combination of instruments. The artistry in their performance was impeccable, but not to be overlooked was the joy they experienced as they played, and which they communicated to a most appreciative audience.

(Out of 4 Stars)

Renée Silberman is an essayist on topics of musical interest who has authored program notes for performances in concert halls in Canada and the U.S. She is the founder of the Serenata Music Series.