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Gramophone awards shortList 2015

Highly personal and spectacularly good Smetana: at times it’s hard to believe you are in the presence of only four players, so intense is the sound


/K A D E R A B E K



p h o t o G r a p h y shifts, eluding your grasp with its endlessly varying tempos and moods. In the wrong hands it can seem merely ungainly.

The PHQ understand absolutely the plasticity of Smetana’s vision and convey it unerringly, unshrinkingly – and in some ways even more convincingly than the Talich, which is saying something. This is extraordinarily bold playing – and they truly capture the sense that Smetana is writing symphonic quartet music. The extremes are, again, tellingly conveyed. Take a passage such as the second movement (tr 6, 1’03”) where, in contrast to the angry, angular octave writing, Smetana gives the viola a consoling melody against lolloping muted violins, conveyed with great immediacy here. And if you want to hear how powerful this group can sound, just sample the opening of the third movement (tr 7), which has an inexorable vehemence to it that is frankly terrifying. It gives the imitative writing that follows not only a heart-rending fragility but also an otherworldliness that seems to summon the spirit of Beethoven’s late quartets. And in the PHQ’s hands, the dance of the finale, now affirmative, now hesitant, seems to pose as many questions as it answers. Is he going to snatch victory from darkness? For a time it seems as if it might be so; but the final repeated slashing chords (tr 8, 2’22”) have an unmistakable air of desperation about them.

The recording captures the quartet as if they were in your living room and if anyone thinks that a disc of under 50 minutes is a bit mean, sample the music-making and you’ll soon change your mind. This is the kind of disc that makes record reviewing the best job in the world. Harriet Smith (May 2015)

Stg Qts – selected comparison:  Talich Qt (9/14) (LDV) LDV255  Stg Qt No 1 – selected comparison:  Jerusalem Qt (3/14) (HARM) HMC90 2178

‘Winds & Piano’ Beethoven Quintet for Piano and Winds, Op 16 Caplet Quintet for Piano and Winds Farrenc Sextet, Op 40 Mozart Quintet for Piano and Winds, K452 Poulenc Sextet, Op 100 Rimsky-Korsakov Quintet for Piano and Winds Roussel Divertissement, Op 6 Thuille Sextet, Op 6 Les Vents Français with Eric Le Sage pf Warner Classics S c 2564 62318-5 (179’ • DDD)

Two favourites (of mine, at any rate) frame this three-CD set of wind-ensemble pieces from Les Vents Français. The fact that they are also superbly played and instinctively characterised from the stylistic point of view should not be a cause for surprise when you see that the group of players comprises such illustrious musicians as the flautist Emmanuel Pahud, clarinettist Paul Meyer, oboist François Leleux and bassoonist Gilbert Audin, with Radovan Vlatkovic´ on horn and Eric Le Sage on piano. This is a positive dream team, who not only capture the music’s individual spirit but also clearly enjoy doing so.

They start off with Poulenc’s Sextet of 1932, a work that has the capacity to win over even the most impatient Poulencsceptic with its joie de vivre and its blend of charm and effervescence. Then at the end of the recital comes Rimsky-Korsakov’s Quintet of 1876, dating to the time when Rimsky, having been appointed inspector of naval bands, steeped himself in a study of wind instruments and produced not only this Quintet but also the concertos for trombone, oboe and clarinet. He was not, perhaps, as assured in his writing for piano. The Quintet is a work with flaws; but in a generous performance such as this one from Les Vents Français they are effectively disguised so that the first movement, for instance, comes across with the brio Rimsky must have intended rather than being bogged down, as can sometimes happen, by the piano’s weightiness. Even the dutiful fugue in the central movement is given mellifluous shape and thoughtful colouring here.

The second disc is the centrepiece of the set with its exceptionally well-defined and balanced interpretations of Mozart’s piano-and-wind Quintet of 1784 and Beethoven’s of 1796. But there are some rarities here, too. In the piano-writing of her 1852 C minor Sextet, the French composer Louise Farrenc reveals her debt to the likes of Hummel but the woodwind instruments are likewise treated considerately and with alertness to timbre, particularly in a beguiling slow movement. The Quintet (1899) by André Caplet perhaps shows why he is more famous as a friend and orchestrator of Debussy, and Ludwig Thuille’s B flat Sextet (1888) cannot really shake off an influence from Brahms. But the set as a whole is a compelling compendium of creative variety unified by matchless musicianship. Geoffrey Norris (March 2015)


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