THUILLE: Sextet for Piano & Woodwind Quintet. POULENC: Sextet for Piano & Woodwind Quintet. FRANÇAIX: L’Heure du Berger / Margarita Höhenrieder, pianist; Kammerharmonie der Sachsischen Staatskapelle Dresden / Solo Musica SM251
This particular disc of beautifully-played woodwind sextets features works by one Tyrolean (Ludwig Thuille) and two 20th-century Frenchmen. Their playing style, though in the modern mold—crisp and clean, with little room for rubato or other niceties of expression—happens to fit the music very well, the one exception being the Thuille sextet. This is because, to be charitable about it, the music is pretty mediocre. It toodles along in its comfortably Tyrolean way, nicely organized from a formal standpoint and developed well in terms of technical accomplishment but saying little or nothing that hasn’t been said, and much better, by dozens of other composers writing in a similar style. What does make it work is the crisp, clean style of the performers. By not lingering too much or pulling the tempo around like taffy, they present the best-case scenario for its acceptance.
Interest picks up considerably with the wonderful Poulenc Sextet, a real gem in his output. It has long amazed me how witty his music was, especially considering what a melancholy streak the man had in him. I suppose it was a case of someone laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. My sole caveat about this performance was that it sounded a bit rushed, but it is played splendidly with exceptional tone quality from the winds of the Staatskapelle Dresden Chamber Players. It’s difficult to ruin Poulenc if you’re a good musician, but I simply must single out French hornist Robert Langbein for his exceptionally beautiful, rounded tone and almost inexhaustible breath control. Bravo, Robert!
As for pianist Hohenrieder, she plays extremely well in context. Chamber playing of this style is a completely different art from solo or even duo-sonata style; the artist must completely subjugate him or herself into the ensemble, and this is particularly true of 20th-century French works like those of Poulenc and Françaix, whose music screams for clean lines and an unfussy delivery. I did, however, feel that the sonics were a bit on the glassy side, not so much as to be a detriment but not as warm as I might have preferred.
Interestingly, L’Heure du Berger is the only piano-woodwind sextet that Françaix wrote, his other such work being for six wind players and no pianist. But this is clearly his wittiest work, using the winds in such a way as to almost suggest a drunken swagger through the music, and the Saxon Chamber Players play this up to the hilt. It’s so much fun to listen to that you forget and forgive them for the Thuille piece that opens this CD.
All in all, a truly charming recital by a group that I hope to hear more of, and a pianist I’d like to hear in solo performance as well!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley