Nicholas Yonge Society

Chamber Music in Lewes

27th October 2017

Haydn Divertimento in Bb major arr. Harold Perry
JS Bach Prelude and Fugue in Bb minor BWV 867 arr. Joseph Shiner
Endre Servánsky Wind Quintet no.1
George Gershwin Porgy and Bess Suite arr. Bill Holcombe
György Ligeti Six Bagatelles
Paul Patterson Westerly Winds

The opening concert of the 2017-2018 season was a completely joyous occasion. The presence of five young, highly talented wind players in the Society’s programme (typically dominated by piano and strings) had something to do with it. As did the repertoire, ranging from Bach to the present day, a mixture of arrangements and original compositions. I have nothing but praise for the playing, and the choice of music was inspired. Being a wind quintet is not a full time occupation, and even when they are together, the Magnard Ensemble spend a lot of their time working in an educational setting as much as in the concert hall. I imagine it is with this in mind that the music they play is bright, lively and tuneful; in this concert, the varied use of folk music provided a leitmotif which linked composers as disparate as Haydn, Gershwin and Patterson.

Not all folk music is necessarily sung, but these players, who were blowing (rather than scraping or banging) their instruments, made a physical connection between their breath and the anonymous singers whose melodies were at the heart of the now abstract compositions we heard. The music was borne aloft by wonderfully sustained sung lines, a quality that instrumental musicians may sometimes aspire to, but which is so rarely achieved, and certainly not as it was so consistently by these players.

The opening piece, an arrangement for quintet of a divertimento which may or may not be by Haydn, was full of spiky rhythms. The attack was firm but not explosive, and wonderfully uniform; these musicians obviously really enjoy each others’ company. Comparisons between the wind quintet and that more familiar of chamber music ensembles, the string quartet, are inevitable. Whereas the strings are essentially different sized versions of the same instrument, and will almost automatically produce a uniform sound, with a wind quintet the reverse is true; the ‘blend’ is not necessarily even desirable, and when it is, can prove surprisingly elusive. The Magnards exchanged the roles of soloist and team player with consummate ease. The second movement of the divertimento was a chorale – another sung form, and one which had a familiar tune. Now the players transformed themselves into an organ, a different sort of pipe instrument where the sound is produced with air, and everything came together in perfect balance and harmony. There was a nice transition from this opener to the arrangement of Bach’s Prelude and fugue - even the key shifted subtly from B flat major to B flat minor – since here again, the players chose to emulate the sound of the organ. Not what Bach had in mind as his ‘well-tempered klavier’ but still something entirely appropriate to the sound word in which he moved.

The rest of the programme was given over to 20th-century music. Ligeti’s Six bagatelles are one of the pinnacles of the quintet repertoire and formed the centrepiece of the second half. The playing of these taxing miniatures was impeccably controlled; long lines floated in mid-air by invisible thread, percussive scrunches left the ears tingling. The idea of preceding these with the quintet by Servánsky, also based on Hungarian folk music, meant that the listener was already attuned to the idiom, and Ligeti, who can be daunting at the best of times, now resounded with seemingly familiar echoes, as if he was quoting nursery rhymes, not treating us to the furthest reaches of musical modernism.

The concert was brought to a thrilling conclusion with a performance of Paul Patterson’s Westerly winds, with the composer in the audience. These four pieces are all based on West Country tunes, including Linden Lea and the Floral Dance, inventively disassembled and recombined for the five instruments. Guest bassoonist Ashley Myall provided the same solid foundation he had all evening, and the other members of the quintet revelled in the idiomatic writing. The beaming faces that acknowleged the audience’s very enthusiastic applause showed again how much the Magnard Ensemble loves giving pleasure to its public. Let’s hope their developing careers allow them to continue making music together and bringing their winning combination of imaginative programming and impeccable playing to many more music lovers. 

Reviewer: Timothy Wilcox