Rameau / Ravel / Albéniz / Wranitzky
Auditorium maximum, ETHZ, Zürich, Zurich, 2023-01-31
2023-02-12 — Original posting
Werke von Rameau, Ravel, Albéniz und Wranitzky in Bearbeitungen für Rohrblatt-Quintett — Zusammenfassung
Das 2016 gegründete BlattWerk Quintett besteht aus den MusikerInnen Martin Bliggenstorfer: Oboe, Englischhorn; Jonas Tschanz: Sopran- und Altsaxophon; Elise Jacoberger: Fagott; Nils Kohler: Klarinette, Bassklarinette; Richard Haynes: Klarinetten in Es (hoch) und A, Bassetthorn, Bassklarinette. Im Rahmen von “Musik an der ETH und UZH” präsentierte das in Bern beheimatete Ensemble im Auditorium Maximum der ETHZ Werke aus Barock, Klassik und aus dem frühen 20. Jahrhundert. Alle Kompositionen erklangen als Bearbeitungen für Rohrblatt-Instrumente, die das Ensemble selbst erstellt hat.
Das Programm eröffnete mit Auszügen aus Cembalosuiten von Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764). Unter dem Titel “Suite in a-moll «La Triomphante»” verbargen sich Auszüge aus dem Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin (1706): das Prélude aus der Suite in a-moll, RCT 1. Die weiteren Sätze von Rameau (Allemande, Les Trois Mains, La triomphante, Gavotte) entstammen der späteren Suite in a-moll, RCT 5 aus den Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin.
Das zweite Werk war eine vollständige Bearbeitung der vierhändigen Klaviersuite “Ma Mère L’Oye“, M.60 von Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937).
Nach der Pause folgte ein akrobatischer Höhepunkt im Piano-Repertoire: die drei Sätze El Puerto (Nr.2), Evocación (Nr.1) und El Albaicín (Nr.7) aus der bekannten, zwölfsätzigen Suite “Iberia“ des Spaniers Isaac Albéniz (1860 – 1909). Leider ließ sich hier die extreme Virtuosität des Originals kaum nachvollziehen—dafür erlebte man die Atmosphäre von Albéniz beschriebenen Lokalitäten viel direkter.
Das offizielle Programm schloss mit einem Werk, das lange Zeit Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) zugeschrieben wurde, als Partita (Divertimento) für Bläser-Oktett in F-dur, Hob.II:F7. In Tat und Wahrheit handelt es sich jedoch um die Parthia in F major, IPW 7 aus dem Ballet “Das Waldmädchen” des Oesterreichisch-Mährischen Komponisten Paul Wranitzky (1756 – 1808).
Ein “Zückerchen” zum Abschluss: als Zugabe spielte das Ensemble den ersten Satz, Allegretto, aus der Suite, op.14, Sz.62, BB 70 des Ungaren Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945) in einer hinreißenden Interpretation.
Table of Contents
- Das Programm
- Concert & Review
- Rameau: Suite in A minor, “La Triomphante”
- Ravel: “Ma Mère L’Oye”, M.60
- Albéniz: Suite “Iberia”
- Wranitzky: Ballet “Das Waldmädchen” — Parthia in F major, IPW 7
- Encore — Bartók: Suite, op.14, Sz.62, BB 70 — I. Allegretto
- The BlattWerk Quintett on CD
|Venue, Date & Time||Auditorium Maximum der ETHZ, Zürich, 2023-01-31 19:30h|
|Series / Title||Musik an der ETH und UZH — Chamber Music Evening|
|Reviews from related events||Previous Concerts in the Series “Musik an der ETH und UZH”|
Previous Concerts in this Venue
The artists of this chamber music evening were the BlattWerk Quintett. The name “BlattWerk” is a word play: strictly speaking, the German word Blattwerk means “foliage”. Here, though, it refers to “Blatt” (leaf), and that again is linked to Rohrblatt, the German word for “reed”. Two reeds form the mouthpiece of double reed instruments, such as oboes and bassoons. Clarinets and saxophones are single reed instruments. These use a single reed—strictly not a reed, but a carefully crafted, thin piece of wood that is mounted in the mouthpiece.
The BlattWerk Quintett consists of the following instrumentalists:
- Martin Bliggenstorfer, oboe, cor anglais
- Jonas Tschanz, saxophones (soprano, alto)
- Elise Jacoberger, bassoon
- Nils Kohler, clarinet, bass clarinet
- Richard Haynes, E♭ soprano clarinet, clarinet, basset horn, bass clarinet
Technically, all instruments in this concert are members of the “woodwind” family, even though some of the instruments (saxophones) are made of brass. “Reed instruments” is more accurate here, as there were no “non-reed” woodwinds, such as transverse flutes, and the like.
On the BlattWerk Quintett
The BlattWerk Quintett emerged 2016 in Bern, Switzerland and has since evolved into one of Europe’s leading reed ensembles. The five musicians are members in Bern’s Ensemble Proton (a group of musicians specializing in contemporary classical music), and of the Symphonieorchester Bern (Bern Symphony Orchestra), Bern’s main orchestra for concerts and theater. At the same time, members of the BlattWerk Quintett often make guest appearances in orchestras such as the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, the Basel Sinfonietta, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and other formations.
One of the key objectives of the BlattWerk Quintett is, to expand the repertoire for reed ensembles, to explore new areas. For this, they are commissioning works from composers. However, they very often also make arrangements of existing works for their instruments, hereby covering a broad range of styles, from baroque to contemporary.
As the artists explained, the main difference to “ordinary” wind quintets is that they replaced the flute with (soprano) saxophone, and the horn with bass clarinet.
None of the works in this program are original compositions for the configuration of the BlattWerk Quintett. Most or all of the pieces are arrangements that the instrumentalists created for themselves:
- Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764): Suite in A minor “La Triomphante“
- Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin (1706), Suite in A minor, RCT 1 — I. Prélude
- Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin, Suite in A minor, RCT 5 (Excerpts)
- Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937): “Ma Mère L’Oye“, for piano 4-hands, M.60
- Isaac Albéniz (1860 – 1909): Suite “Iberia”
- 2. El Puerto (Book 1)
- 1. Evocación (Book 1)
- 7. El Albaicín (Book 3)
- Paul Wranitzky (1756 – 1808): Ballet “Das Waldmädchen” — Parthia in F major, IPW 7
- Encore: Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945): Suite, op.14, Sz.62, BB 70 — I. Allegretto
So far, the BlattWerk Quintett is not known to many people in the Zurich area. With that, one could almost expect that the audience size would be limited. Indeed, for the around 40 visitors, the smaller and much more stylish and atmospheric, venerable Semper Aula (capacity: 99 people) would have been the far more appropriate venue. However, unfortunately, the Semper Aula is in renovation, and so, the event took place in the larger, modern setting of the Auditorium maximum, in the same building. At least, this had the advantage of offering excellent visibility to everybody in the audience. I took advantage of a first-row balcony seat near the center.
Concert & Review
Rameau: Suite in A minor, “La Triomphante“
Composer & Work
The program opened with a suite by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764). The program referred to the suite as “La Triomphante”—which actually is the title of one movement in the Suite in A minor, RCT 5 the first of two Suites published 1726/1727 under the title Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin. The Suite in A minor consists of 7 movements, out of which the ensemble selected four:
- Les Trois Mains (“the three hands”)
- La Triomphante
- Gavotte et six doubles
Baroque suites often start with a prelude or with an overture. So, the ensemble expanded the above selection by opening their performance with the first movement (out of 9), Prélude from the Suite in A minor, RCT 1. The composer published that first of his harpsichord suites in 1706, under the title Premier Livre de Pièces de Clavecin. With this, the sequence of movements was
Prélude — Allemande — Les Trois Mains — Fanfarinette — La Triomphante — Gavotte et six doubles
The ensemble’s arrangement is for cor anglais, soprano saxophone, bassoon, bass clarinet, and clarinet (I’m listing the instruments in the order on the podium, left-to-right).
I understand the idea of opening Rameau’s suite with a Prélude, for a “proper beginning”. And: that Prélude appears the logical choice, given that it is in the same key of A minor. However, I think that the selected piece wasn’t the best one for this purpose. Or, at least, it was a challenging choice, especially in the arrangement for reeds!
There are several problems to solve here: first, the first part is without bar lines, i.e., metrically / rhythmically free, except for the approximate relative durations of whole notes vs. crotchets vs. quavers. And there is no tempo annotation. In the first line, even the coordination of left vs. right hand is only vaguely defined. In other words: the artist (harpsichordist) is free in the choice of tempo, and (to some degree) even the rhythm. So, a harpsichordist would never play the whole notes on the first line as is: rather, one would add ornamentation and freely contract these notes rhythmically.
Arrangement and Performance
The piece opens with two whole notes in a falling octave. The first note has “)” added. In Rameau’s own list of ornaments for the first collection (RCT 1), this means a double mordent, while in later works, it is clearly used (also) for single mordents. The BlattWerk Quintett (i.e., the bassoon) played a single mordent, and they added a few extra mordents throughout the introduction (above those which the composer specified). The ascending whole note-figures in the descant were non-metric, much shorter than the bass opening.
Superficially, it seemed that the essential ingredients were there—nevertheless, the entire opening (to me) was lacking tension and a defined flow. I don’t mean regular flow—but something that made sense to me as a listener. Somehow, it felt as if bass and descant hadn’t decided on the (non-)rhythmic / (non-)metric progression of that opening—it somehow felt “flat” and vague. Maybe that’s easier to achieve for a harpsichordist? Should the large intervals have been filled with fiorituras? Or, was this just a question of the musicians adapting to the somewhat sober, technical atmosphere in this modern auditorium?
As soon as the notation switched to a 12/8 meter, the music, the performance felt better, more defined. Now, the music suddenly “made (more) sense”. I started to enjoy the sonority of the ensemble. Even though clearly, compared to the harpsichord original, the arrangement still seemed rather harmless. Mere baroque entertainment music?
The earnest, almost melodramatic ending of the Prélude contrasted with the Allemande, which soon offered a warmer, more melodious and amazingly mellow soundscape, with the main voices lines being carried by cor anglais, soprano saxophone and a clarinet. Far, far from the aggressive sound of a jazz saxophone! Here, the harmonious ornaments, the dense web of voices, the warm ensemble sound, the richness in the multitude of colors all made sense: compelling! Could it be that the fact that this was composed 20 years after the Prélude made much (or most) of the difference?
Les Trois Mains
For the most part a lively, sometimes even virtuosic duet of the soprano voices—playful, excellent in the coordination, and in the interplay between the voices. Quibbles? Occasionally, there was maybe a subtle loss in momentum—and, in contrast, some very slight rushing towards the end of a part, around the clarinet cadenza(s).
A sort of a Rondo, in the scheme AABACA: Yes, the main theme is a triumphant gesture, very catchy—maybe too catchy, as even within the A part, it is repeated twice, hence appeared 8 times. This easily causes this to turn into an earworm. Not the most interesting of the movements—and naming the suite (selection) after this movement is hardly justified, I think. That is not criticism on the performance or on the transcription, though: to me, the original on the harpsichord is even less interesting!
Gavotte et six doubles
A Gavotte with six variations. Beautiful cantabile in the lyrical, calm Gavotte, carried out by cor anglais, soprano saxophone, and clarinet. Harmonious in the ornamentation. Equally serene and calm in the first Double, where in the second part, bassoon and bass clarinet join in for the bass part and the lower part of the melody line.
The second Double maintains the lyrical, calm pace in the soprano instruments. At the same time—an excellent idea for the arrangement—bassoon and bass clarinet were alternating in the lively bass line, all in semiquavers. For the most part, the third Double moves the semiquaver line into the center, again keeping the basic pace: here, the instrument timbres seemed particularly well-attuned—gentle, mellow, harmonious!
Transcribing the fourth Double seems tricky, as the main “attraction” in this movement is in the repeated notes / chords played by alternating hands (and on two keyboards / manuals, presumably). The ensemble emulated this by switching instruments between even and odd beats. That arrangement was not quite as successful as in the other Doubles. There are similarities with Double #6, in that here, there are also (some) note repetitions. Again, the main voice was shared in the soprano instruments, though here, the voice was split in groups of 5 and 3 semiquavers—a Capriccio of sorts, fun!
The final Double combines the chordic right hand from the second Double with the semiquaver line from Double No.5, now in the bass—at a much faster pace. Well-played, elegant and virtuosic in the bass instruments—excellent, for sure—congrats!
Ravel: “Ma Mère L’Oye”, M.60
Composer & Work
1910, the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) wrote his Piano Duet “Ma Mère L’Oye“, M.60 (“My Mother the Goose”) for two children aged 6 and 7. The work consists of 5 movements:
- Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant: Lent
(Pavane from “Sleeping Beauty”)
- Petit Poucet: Très modéré
(Little Tom Thumb / Hop-o’-My-Thumb)
- Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes: Mouvement de marche
(Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas)
- Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête: Mouvement de valse très modéré
(Conversation of Beauty and the Beast)
- Le jardin féerique: Lent et grave
(The Fairy Garden)
The original is for piano, 4-hands. The composer also crerated arrangements for piano, 2-hands, as well as for two pianos. In 1911, Ravel orchestrated the suite, and in the same year, he expanded it to a ballet.
The ensemble’s transcription is for oboe, alto saxophone, bassoon, bass clarinet, and clarinet(s).
I. Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant: Lent
Seemingly simple in texture, as well as for the musicians. Yet, that short movement is hard to fill with meaning, atmosphere. I felt that in this arrangement, one could at best see this as preparation, as introduction that is meant to create expectations for the things to come…
II. Petit Poucet: Très modéré
The movement describes the protagonist trying to find his way back by looking for bread crumbs that he spread before—just to find that the birds had eaten them all.
Here now, the arrangement very much made sense: excellent, these meandering, searching lines of the soprano (and alto) instruments. After , there are 4 bars marked expressif et en dehors (expressive and outside), where the clarinet marked bird calls. The instrument is perfectly well-suited for this, the result very realistic—fun for kids, maybe a little too concrete for general audiences? Unwaveringly, the protagonist continues his search after this short episode…
III. Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes: Mouvement de marche
More fairy tale—the score quotes the following: «She undressed and put herself in the bath. Immediately pagodas and pagodines began to sing and play instruments: some had theorbos made of a walnut shell; others had viols made of an almond shell; for it was necessary to proportion the instruments to their size…» (translated using Deepl).
Truly excellent, this arrangement: here, the instrumentation not only made real sense—it actually was very much an enhancement over Ravel’s piano original! I really liked the drive, the momentum in the secondo part, and the Gamelan motifs on the clarinet were excellent, as were the 2-bar swelling waves. My only minor quibble was with minor intonation issues in the bass instruments in the middle part, after .
IV. Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête: Mouvement de valse très modéré
Also here, there is a (longer) quote in the score: «“When I think of your good heart, you don’t seem so ugly to me.” – “Oh! Lady yes! I have a good heart, but I am a monster.” – “There are many men who are more monsters than you.” – “If I had a mind, I would pay you a great compliment to thank you, but I am only a beast…
Beauty, will you be my wife?” – “No, the Beast!…”
“I die happy since I have the pleasure of seeing you again.” – “No, my dear Beast, you will not die: you will live to be my husband!” The Beast had disappeared and she saw only a prince at her feet, more beautiful than Love, who thanked her for having finished his enchantment.»
Another excellent arrangement! One could easily follow the action, the fairy tale. First, the beauty talking: very much an impressionist painting—beautiful, gentle (little quibble: weren’t there momentary, subtle signs of unrest?). Then, the beast: “ugly” in the dissonances, but very much alive, with a very clear change in colors. In general: this richness in colors—excellent, up to the last bars, where Ravel creates a synthesis of beauty and beast: definitely a vast enhancement over the piano version!
V. Le jardin féerique: Lent et grave
Another impressionist painting, so atmospheric, so rich in colors, nuances! Here, the E♭ soprano clarinet was the ideal instrument for the top voice in the very high descant—both nice and interesting / fascinating.
Albéniz: Suite “Iberia”
Composer & Work
Isaac Albéniz (1860 – 1909) composed his Suite “Iberia” between 1905 and 1909. The Suite consists of 12 movements, organized in four books, out of which the artists selected three movements. For the selected movements, I’m quoting from the descriptions in Wikipedia:
- Book 1
An impressionist reminiscence of Albéniz’s native country, combining elements of the southern Spanish fandango and the northern Spanish jota song forms
- El Puerto
A zapateado inspired by El Puerto de Santa María, in Cádiz.
- Fête-dieu à Séville
- Book 2
- Book 3
- Book 4
The suite is considered the composer’s masterwork—and indeed is one of the most challenging works in the entire piano repertoire. Wikipedia quotes one commenter with the statement “There is really nothing in Isaac Albeniz’s Iberia that a good three-handed pianist could not master, given unlimited years of practice and permission to play at half tempo. But there are few pianists thus endowed.“
With their selection of three movements, the ensemble created a three-movement piece in the scheme fast — slow — fast:
II. El Puerto
A really excellent arrangement—and beautiful, enthralling music, with its heavily swaying zapateado rhythm. The piano music primarily conveys feeling and rhythm of the underlying folk dance. The arrangement by the BlattWerk Quintett, however, not only was highly atmospheric, it was much more! It felt as if someone removed a curtain and opened a window, a view onto a scene in El Puerto de Santa María. Fascinating!
The opening piece from Ibéria contrasted with its rather contemplative, reflective nature—nevertheless, it was just as atmospheric as El Puerto! And in that way, it felt just as authentic and original!
VII. El Albaicín
It goes without saying that like in the previous two, also in the last movement from Ibéria, the BlattWerk Quintett‘s reed arrangement removed an entire level of abstraction that is inherent to the piano score. Not just that: in large parts of the ensemble’s interpretation, the performance felt (almost) easy! Yes, it did convey “Spanish spirit and atmosphere”—however, at the same time, the artistry in Albéniz’ pianistic masterpiece was largely gone! In a way, I found that to be a pity: after all, El Albaicín is definitely one of the composer’s artistic / pianistic highlights, and removing / bypassing the piece’s acrobatic aspects to me meant defeating major parts of its attraction / fascination.
I don’t mean to criticize the undeniable qualities of the arrangement. I’m merely regretting the loss that is inherent to moving this music away from its original / genuine instrument & medium.
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Wranitzky: Ballet “Das Waldmädchen” — Parthia in F major, IPW 7
Composer & Work
For a long time, the last piece in the official program was known as Partita (Divertimento) for wind instruments in F major, Hob.II:F7 by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 –- 1809). However, further research revealed that this is actually a work by the prolific Austrian-Moravian composer Paul Wranitzky (1756 – 1808). Wranitzky was highly respected by the prominent contemporaries in Vienna, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827).
In 1796, Wranitzky composed the Ballet “Das Waldmädchen“ (one of Wranitzky’s over 10 ballets). This probably is mostly known because Beethoven wrote his 12 Variations on a Russian Dance in A major, WoO 71, based on a theme from Wranitzky’s ballet “Das Waldmädchen” (see also an earlier media review featuring Beethoven’s WoO 71). That ballet also features the Parthia in F major, IPW 7—identical to Haydn’t alleged Partita Hob.II:F7 mentioned above. It’s a Divertimento for Harmoniemusik (Harmonie), i.e., for wind octet consisting of 2 oboes or flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, and 2 bassoons. It features four movements, out of which the ensemble selected three:
- Allegro molto
- Poco Adagio con Variazioni
- Menuetto — Trio I — Menuetto — Trio II — Menuetto
- Finale: Allegro non tanto
As one of the musicians explained, in their arrangement, they “condensed” the eight octet voices down to five: oboe, alto saxophone, bassoon, basset horn, and clarinet.
I. Allegro molto
The fact that Paul Wranitzky now is barely known as composer (even though he was so productive!) is absolutely misleading! It’s for good reason that this Parthia was long attributed to Haydn. Its themes, the composition, etc. are absolutely on a par with similar works by Haydn. The first movement, Allegro molto, is lively, real fun—very high level entertainment. And the arrangement for reed quintet did not deprive the piece of features or diminish its quality in any way: it merely introduced a slight shift in colors, without altering the character of the composition. I was amazed by the smooth, almost inconspicuous sound of the alto saxophone.
III. Menuetto — Trio I — Menuetto — Trio II — Menuetto
As a composition, the third movement may be the most unspectacular, perhaps the most modest one among the three in this concert—nevertheless, it is good music that does not lack invention. I don’t mean to criticize—but from the visual impression, my intuition made me expect a more poignant, slightly more prominent sound from the alto saxophone. But OK: in the original version, the horns aren’t very conspicuous either.
IV. Finale: Allegro non tanto
Clearly, this was the highlight within the Parthia! Joy- and playful, motoric, enthralling, virtuosic, fun—simply excellent. And a very good choice for the end of the (official) program!
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Encore — Bartók: Suite, op.14, Sz.62, BB 70 — I. Allegretto
Composer & Work
The artists decided to offer an encore—the arrangement of a piano work by Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945): the first movement, Allegretto, from the Suite, op.14, Sz.62, BB 70, written in February 1916. This movement was arranged for oboe, alto saxophone, bassoon, bass clarinet, and clarinet.
The jump from Vienna classics to the world of Béla Bartók may feel huge—almost disturbingly huge, maybe? Well, there was a good amount of applause in-between, plus some concluding remarks from the ensemble—and so, it wasn’t as much of a shock as one might expect. Bartók’s Allegretto is as easy to “digest” as Ravel’s or Albéniz’ works in the program. More than that: it is a real fun piece: motoric, enthralling, playful, but also including surprises, and even short reflective moments.
The interpretation was excellent, flawless, of course! This piece, i.e., the entire Suite, op.14, Sz.62, BB 70, is part of the ensemble’s recently released CD (see below for information). Consequently, they played this by heart, which must have contributed to making this movement the most compelling, maybe most enthralling performance of the evening.
If you are a “purist” who only considers original compositions, you may be tempted to “look down” onto reed arrangements. Especially if they involve a saxophone for works from classic and baroque periods, when such instruments (or the bass clarinet, the basset horn) weren’t invented yet. However, one should keep in mind that also in baroque and classic times, arrangements of popular pieces were almost ubiquitous. Plus, many of the reed arrangements by the BlattWerk Quintett opened new perspectives, new insights into already well-known works.
The BlattWerk Quintett on CD
The following CD description / link is added for reference — I have not listened to this recording in its entirety.
BlattWerk Quintett: “Figurations”
Compositions by Bartók, Ravel, Feldmann, Debussy
Schweizer Fonogramm (CD, stereo, ℗ 2022)
The Contents of the CD:
- Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945): Suite, op.14, Sz.62, BB 70
- Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937): “Ma Mère L’Oye”, M.60
- Walter Feldmann (*1965): Synchronstudie No.2 for Low Wind Quintet (2005): “figurations de mémoire”
- Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918): Suite bergamasque (L.75)
All works arranged for reed quintet.
The author would like to express his gratitude to the organizer, Nina Orotchko (Musical Discovery) for the invitation to this recital.