Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Nexus Reed Quintet @ Wigmore Hall, London

18 October 2016

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

‘The reed quintet’ is a relatively new combination of instruments on the chamber-music scene, and consists of instruments with single or double reeds – typically an oboe (or cor anglais), a soprano (or alto) saxophone, a clarinet, a bassoon and a bass clarinet. The Swiss reed quintet Nexus won this year’s Swiss Ambassador’s Award, and Tuesday night’s concert marked the beginning of a four-UK-city tour that came as part of the prize.

Because the combination is so new, the back catalogue of works to draw on is small, and most concerts, therefore, (including this one) are a mixture of contemporary commissions and arrangements of existing works.

The evening began with an arrangement of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s eight-movement Suite La Triomphante, originally written for harpsichord. This was arguably the best piece in the concert; the transfer from keyboard to quintet resulted in a completely new timbre for the work that enabled the subtle character of each instrument to be brought out in the contrapuntal passages – a charming duet between the clarinet and bass clarinet in the fugal section of the Prélude, for example, or the delicious little decorative runs and flourishes from all of the instruments throughout the Sarabande. In the more homophonic sections – particularly when the gloves came off in the louder moments – the blend of all five instruments produced a satisfyingly fat fusion of modern and baroque, and the clever passing of the melody between instruments in some of the variations of the final Gavotte et 6 doubles was highly enjoyable.

It is always slightly depressing when a composer stands on stage and explains how a piece was created, and it almost invariably provokes the response “so why do we now need to hear the music?” Stefan Wirth took time out to detail how his commissioned piece Night Snow with Wolves (for oboe/cor anglais, soprano/alto saxophone, bassoon and two bass clarinets) was inspired by a child’s scribble. This, it has to be said, was entirely obvious from the music. The piece contained some interesting sonorities (one bass clarinet is rare, to hear two sounding together is a treat indeed), and some of the little ‘pecking’ chords or parallel runs were novel exercises in timbre. But, in spite of the excellent rendition of it given by Nexus, this was essentially music by a composer for composers, created through the medium of mathematical devices, resulting in an unapproachable muddle of busy tuneless wandering interspersed with an occasional blarting note-cluster. Fine for a couple of days stuck to the fridge door, but definitely not something to put in the family scrapbook.

The final piece in the programme was an arrangement by the group’s oboe-player, of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations on an Original Theme. Here again was a collection of lovely sounds: some jolly runs and trills in the first variation; a cleverly organised conversation between alto saxophone and clarinet in variation five, and a radiantly warm ensemble sound in the sixth variation. But, unlike the Rameau, the arrangement diminished rather than augmented the piece. The problem is that Elgar was such a subtle and accomplished orchestrator, and, more than any of his works, the Enigma Variations depends on timbre – the characters of his friends are depicted in the brilliantly selected instrument combinations as much as in the notes – and much of this (the swirling strings, the yearning cello solo) was lost. The combination of instruments gave us a suitably Edwardian sound (on occasions summoning up a perfect garden-party silver band), but not, alas, an Elgarian one.

buy Nexus MP3s or CDs
Spotify Nexus on Spotify

More on Nexus
Nexus Reed Quintet @ Wigmore Hall, London