Pre-Christmas Joy from the Haffner Wind Ensemble

Nicholas Daniel [oboe], Joy Farrell [clarinet], Thomas Hancox [flute], Sarah Burnett [bassoon], Martin Owen [horn]). The Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 1 December 2017.

Beethoven (arr. Mordechai Rechtmann) – Quintet in E flat, Op.4
Jean-Michel Damase – 17 Variations, Op.22

The Haffner Wind Ensemble is what in jazz circles would be called an ‘All-Star Band’, insofar that all five of its members are distinguished soloists in their own right, the presence of any one of whom would, in itself, be enough to make a concert unmissable. Groups of this sort can become (and sometimes have) become arenas of competing egos rather than a cohesive and cooperative ensemble. No ‘all-star’ chamber group I have previously encountered has more thoroughly subordinated egos to a larger ‘group’ mentality and sensitivity. The unpedantic precision of their ensemble work, their attentively mutual listening, their profitable capacity to stimulate one another, and their obvious pleasure in making music together are the equal of the best String Quartets.

The Haffner’s programme for this excellent lunchtime concert – ahead of a teaching session – consisted of just two works, the first being Beethoven’s Op.4 Quintet. Hold on, I hear some of you saying to yourselves, surely Opus 4 is a String Quintet. Indeed it is, but what is easily forgotten is that this Quintet, composed in 1785 and published in Vienna in the following year, was a reworking, with additions and changes, of an earlier Wind Octet, written in 1792 and only published posthumously, in 1837, as Opus 103. What the Haffner played is a quite brilliant arrangement of the Quintet, for wind instruments, by the German-born bassoonist, all-round musician and chess-master, Mordechai Rechtmann (born in 1926), who left Germany with his family in 1933. What Rechtmann has done very effectively is to re-possess this music for Wind instruments, the greater part of which music was originally written for such instruments.

From the first bars of the opening movement (Allegro con brio) it was obvious how comfortably the music sat in this instrumentation – at any rate when played with the impeccable musicianship and insight of the Haffner Wind Ensemble. Rechtmann has extensive experience of playing the bassoon in wind ensembles, not least the Israel Woodwind Quintet, which he founded in 1963, and the thoroughness and intimacy of his knowledge of how a wind quintet ‘works’ is evident in every bar. Beethoven’s themes are very attractive and seem, in some respects, to benefit from being heard in this arrangement, rather as played by a String Quintet. Rechtmann’s arrangement blends the sound of the instruments beautifully. This was perhaps even truer of the second movement (Andante), the initial melody exquisitely (and yet robustly) played by Nicholas Daniel, the sense of phrasing and melodic line all that one could wish for and the relationship between the five instruments, in terms of balance and dynamics, perfectly handled in both the arrangement and the performance thereof. Perfect musicianship and loving involvement were equally apparent and warmly felt in the third movement – a Menuetto with Two Trios. Hearing the music ‘breathed out’ was one of those magical moments when I thought irresistibly of Caliban’s words in The Tempest, when (in Act III, Scene 7) he speaks of ‘Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’. The final movement (Presto) bubbled along delightfully, full of joie de vivre and it was played with appropriate vivacity. Its slower central section seemed more a reflective pause for reflection than a serious change of mood, The instrumental interplay of the five members of the Haffner Wind Ensemble was a constant delight; ensemble work was tight and precise without ever feeling at all constricted or pedantic. It may come close to sacrilege to say so, but I got more sheer pleasure from this performance of Mordechai Rechtmann’s arrangement than I have ever taken away from a performance of the original String Quintet.

The contribution of Jean-Michel Damase (1928-2013) made to the musical life of his times seems to be seriously underrated. He first came to fame as a pianist. He had studied with no less a figure than Cortot, when aged only 12, and he went on to work, very successfully, as a piano soloist, while also making some significant recordings, most notably of Fauré. As a young man at the Conservatory in Paris, he studied both piano and composition, including studies in harmony and counterpoint with Marcel Dupré. In 1947 he won the prix de Rome, awarded for his cantata Et la belle se réveilla. After giving up touring as a pianist, he concentrated on composition, writing in many genres, orchestral (he wrote a single Symphony and two concertos), operatic (he composed seven operas), choral works and ballet scores. The largest part of his output, however, consisted of chamber music and works for wind instruments, especially flute, horn and oboe, are particularly prominent. Stylistically he remained largely under the influence of figures such as Fauré, Francaix, Roussel and Poulenc – his essential traditionalism perhaps being a major reason for his current neglect. Still, as one French critic (Rodolph Brubneau-Boulmer) has put it ‘la musique de Damase est sans doute une belle definition de l’esprit français’; in its elegance and musical wit, the best of his music is well suited to appeal to audiences within and beyond France.

His ‘17 Variations’ for Wind Quintet (1951) show Damase at something like his best. The work is variously inventive and harmonically sophisticated (while being altogether tonal) and sparkles in its varied combinations of instrumental timbres. The variations follow one another with some rapidity – I soon ‘lost count’ and settled simply to enjoy the tapestry of sound – so I can’t specify exactly which variation it was in which we were treated to superb work from the unaccompanied bassoon of Sarah Burnett; indeed, each instrument in the quintet has its periods in the foreground and all five of the Haffner Wind Ensemble confirmed their mastery in such moments, as well as in the ensemble passages. Variation followed variation – quick or slow, busy or laconic – with charm and fecundity of imagination and each demonstrated Damase’s sympathetic understanding of the nature of these instruments. The Haffner Wind Ensemble played the whole piece with great vivacity and, throughout, communicated the joy that they very evidently felt in this music.

This was the last concert on my reviewing schedule before Christmas and attending it was very much akin to unwrapping a Christmas present, a present made up of what was, in effect, a work by Beethoven reconstructed, and a work of great wit and panache by an unduly neglected French master. Under the leadership of oboist Nicholas Daniel the Haffner Wind Ensemble sent their audience out into the December cold full of joy.

Glyn Pursglove, Seen and Heard International

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