Wind Me Up, Antoine: Circa 1800, Saturday, January 23, 2010

Paul Hopkins, showing off his period horn to conclude an instrument demo/lecture before the second half of the wind quintet Circa 1800‘s program at the Takoma Part/Silver Spring Performing Arts Center at Montgomery College on Saturday night, said that modern instruments will play any note you want as loud as you want, but they sound “monochromatic” to his ears. He and the other four-fifths of Circa 1800 — Colin St. Martin, flute; Meg Owens, oboe; Richard Spece, clarinet; and Anna Marsh, bassoon — gave the audience the period-instrument color it had been missing, in a program of three works designed to trace the genesis of the wind quintet. The Bach Sinfonia presented the concert, and even though Saturday’s repertoire strayed from the Baroque into the Classical and early Romantic eras, the easy-to-enjoy educational mission and high-quality musicianship made the concert fit right in with the Sinfonia’s ethos.

The demonstrations helped the audience understand how the quintet’s composite sound, so rich with shades and savory with unique tangs and aftertastes, came from the five individual instruments. St. Martin’s flute could produce the weak, floaty sound we associated with the baroque flute, but perked up with the application of a key. Hopkins gave a virtuoso demonstration of how to make the natural horn play all the pitches in a scale by putting his hand in the bell of the horn and manipulating the sound. The other instrumentalists gave valuable background on their instruments; even if their demos were not quite as thorough, the instruments sounded vivid when playing.

Circa 1800 expertly blended its members’ sounds, and each instrumentalist played about as well as you can expect on a period instrument in a live concert. (There’s a reason keys were eventually added to the horn; they allow for more accurate and reliable note production, even if the sound itself takes on an overexposed quality.) The enjoyment factor of the performances thus hinged on the quality of the compositions.

Francesco Antonio Rosetti wrote the very first wind quintet, around 1780, and like a lot of first efforts it doesn’t do more than scratch the surface of the possibilities of the form. True, its slow movement has an entertaining false ending in the wrong key, which Circa 1800 brought off with extreme understatement, and Spece had to do some fancy fast clarinetting in the finale, but otherwise not much in the quartet delivered the goods entertainment-wise. The Rosetti did provide a fine opportunity to dip into C1800’s range of tone colors, though, with Owens’ oboe particularly winsome in the first movement.

Proceeding in chronological order, the quintet next played Giuseppe Maria Gioacchino Cambini’s 1802 effort in D minor. This opus opened a few new compositional doors, with the key’s dark harmonies adding a new lustrous quality to the quintet’s sound. The Larghetto established patterns in which one player would drop out as the others carried on, with the instruments changing each time; the regular changes, mated with the unpredictable coloris, had a hypnotic effect. The finale featured some lively rhythms and challenging parts, which Circa 1800 navigated stylishly.

But Antoine Joseph Reicha provided the evening’s main event with his Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op 88 No. 2, written sometime between 1811 and 1820. (The program notes, which at Bach Sinfonia concerts are normally lively and informative without being pedantic, were a little thin on Saturday.) This quintet, part of a set of five that I plan to purchase sometime soon in recorded format for further enjoyment, provided a stiff test for Circa 1800’s virtuosity, and they had the chops to meet it. Marsh’s bassoon gave a stentorian tone to the theme that opened the first movement, but the air of seriousness soon dispersed in some fun variations. Owens got to lead the charge in a catchy, toe-tapping Menuetto that balanced adventuresome development with a well-sprung dance rhythm.

We really got to hear Reicha’s mastery in the last two movements, though. The opening section of the epic “Poco andante” featured no flute at all, rich and impressive, but in the next section St. Martin’s flute had the melody with Hopkins playing soft hunting calls in accompaniment — an ear-tickling juxtaposition, with explorations almost as appealing to follow. The closing rondo had unexpected twists nearly worthy of Reicha’s buddies Beethoven and Haydn, and the zest with which Circa 1800 met the challenge  (and the Reicha in general) elevated the concert from merely pleasant to invigorating. The new sensations from old tone-colors are all well and good, but they shine best when a composer knows how to use that palette.

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