Classical Connections: Feats of Memory

Carion Wind Quintet

Imagine a concert in which there are no chairs for the performers, no clutter of music stands and not a sheet of printed music in sight. This is not unusual in the world of jazz and folk music, but in classical music it’s extremely rare. Even so, there seems to be an increasing trend among some chamber ensembles to perform without printed music. This is a daunting challenge for any musician, because not only must you memorize every note, phrase, articulation and dynamic in your own part, you also have to remember how your part fits with the others. The splendid Danish ensemble, the Carion Wind Quintet, not only plays entire works from memory but uses choreographed movement to add an extra visual dimension to the music.

As you might expect, a wind quintet consists of five wind players; flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon. The horn of course is the odd-one-out because it’s a brass instrument rather than a woodwind, but it’s favoured because of its versatile tone quality and its ability to blend with the clarinet and bassoon. The wind quintet first appeared sometime during the late eighteenth century. It’s a rewarding genre for composers, because so many different timbres and tone combinations are possible. The clarinet for example, has three distinct registers each with its own tone quality. The fascinating Czech-born composer Anton Reicha must have enjoyed writing for this combination because he completed two dozen works for wind quintet thus helping to popularize the form. Although the genre faded during the late romantic period, the 20th century saw something of a revival with works by Holst, Schoenberg, Nielsen, Milhaud and Ibert, to name but five.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Suite No. 2. Carion Wind Quintet. (Duration: 06:24; Video: 2160p 4K HD)

This work was originally a suite for small orchestra which Stravinsky cobbled together in 1921 using some of his earlier writings. It’s all high-spirited stuff and was written at the request of a Paris Music Hall to accompany to a drama sketch. Stravinsky relates his acerbic account of the performance in his Chronicle of my Life: “Although my orchestra was more than modest, the composition as I wrote it was given only at the first few performances. When I went back a month later, I found that there was little left of what I had written. Everything was completely muddled; some instruments were lacking or had been replaced by others and the music as executed by this pitiful band had become unrecognizable.” Stravinsky was clearly not amused.

Recently, the work was arranged for quintet by David Palmquist, the horn player of the Carion Wind Quintet. It’s unmistakable Stravinsky and contains hints of his neo-classical works.  There are four movements, Marche, Valse, Polka and Galop played almost without a break. You’ll hear the composer’s famous “wrong-note” technique and the broken rhythms which gives a kind of circus-like bizarre, comic character to much of the music. In typical fashion, the members of the Carion Quintet give a characteristic choreographed performance and of course play the piece entirely from memory.

György Ligeti (1923-2006): Six Bagatelles. Carion Wind Quintet. (Duration: 11:47; Video: 1080p HD)

I first came across the word “bagatelle” as a child. It was originally a 19th century French table-top game based loosely on billiards. Our family had a 1940s version with a spring-loaded trigger with which you fired metal balls in the hope of getting them into the circular enclosures. Success was largely a matter of luck. The word “bagatelle” was borrowed from the musical piece of the same name, usually given to short work of light or amusing character. Although bagatelles first appeared in the early 19th century for solo piano, they have also been written almost anything else including various chamber-music combinations.

Ligeti is generally regarded as one of the most important avant-garde composers in the second half of the 20th century. You might not be familiar with his name but if you’ve seen the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ve heard his music. Ligeti wrote twelve bagatelles for piano between 1951 and 1953 then transcribed six of them for wind quintet. They are lively little pieces and reflect Ligeti’s sparse approach to composition.  As one critic wrote, they use “a minimum number of notes to maximum effect.” The first movement uses only four pitches, though you’d never guess. All the movements are extremely short and mostly under two minutes in length. Don’t let the harsh dissonances, rapid tempo changes and sparse textures put you off, for these are charming pieces, though really challenging to perform well. The movement between the players also provides a visual clue as to what’s going on musically. The Carion Quintet give a superb performance and with their carefully planned choreography, bring a fascinating new dimension to this remarkable and colourful music.  Now I have to admit that the choreographed performance may not be to everyone’s taste and clearly not all music would lend itself to this treatment. But as far as the Ligeti work is concerned, this approach seems to work brilliantly.