QUINTOPIA | New Sydney Wind Quintet
Privately issued CD (timing)
Available at the artists’ website, www.nswq.com.au / ‘Quintopia’
RAVEL Ma mere l’oye Suite (arr. Linckelmann).
GRAINGER Irish Tune from County Derry. Lisbon. Walking Tune.
CHAN Passage (untitled). Calcium Night Light.
NIELSEN Wind Quintet.
It’s always a pleasant as well as a wonderful surprise to hear a young chamber group nowadays that doesn’t seem to trade on virtuosity for its own sake, a group that takes immense care of the details of their performances so that the sum total makes a good impression, and—yes—one that does NOT tout themselves as “one of the most exciting chamber groups of their generation.” In short, the New Sydney Wind Quintet, celebrating its 10th anniversary as a unit in 2014, can take immense pride from the fact that they are really good, and thus don’t need gimmicks.
So much is evident from the first notes of the quintet arrangement of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. I’ve never really been much of a fan of this piece in its orchestral score—I always found it a bit too Romantic, too heavy, and too precious to fit its designated genre—but the way it is played here, the music has both delicacy (which you’d expect from a quintet arrangement) and charm. And charm is one quality you can’t buy. You either have it or you don’t, and this quintet has it. In fact, the longer I listened to them the less I thought of them as a wind quintet, if you know what I mean. Not one of the five musicians makes the least effort to stand out, even when they are the only instrument playing. They approach their music as a unit, like an orchestra.
In consequence, what you take from the listening experience is the music. The mechanism of the instruments almost seems like a conduit to the mind of Ravel, or Percy Grainger, or Carl Nielsen. It’s just you and the score, coming at you with unparalleled sensitivity and the kind of technical perfection that does not draw attention to itself. Small wonder that Vladimir Ashkenazy said of them, “Superb playing…I cannot imagine these pieces played better.” Listen, for instance, to the way they play Grainger’s arrangement of the Irish Tune, which turns out to be “Danny Boy.” When was the last time you really heard this song played (or sung, for that matter) with real feeling? It is played so here, and that in itself makes it a remarkable performance.
The two pieces by Australian composer Lyle Chan are, it turns out, from his Harp and Wind Quintet. The music is light but utterly delightful, seeming to float through one’s consciousness as if in a dream.
The CD ends with a fine performance of one of the recognized 20th-century masterpieces for this combination, the Nielsen Wind Quintet, and once again the Sydney group places the emphasis on the music, not on their own virtuosity. One hears any number of small details in the score, then, that sometimes pass unnoticed in others’ readings, particularly the way in which
Nielsen combines the oboe, French horn and bassoon as a small ensemble from time to time. My only small complaint of this disc is that the pastoral quality of all this music makes it tend a bit towards sameness of expression. A few outbursts would have been welcome. Otherwise, a splendid disc and a fine introduction to this talented Australian quintet.