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 Recording of the Week  20th-Century Wind Quintets from Les Vents Français

The late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries saw an explosion of compositions for wind quintet, especially in France. A selection of such pieces is featured in a new two-disc set from Les Vents Français, founded by clarinettist Paul Meyer and including players such as Emmanuel Pahud, co-principal flute of the Berlin Philharmonic. With such esteemed performers you would expect great things, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Les Vents Français
Les Vents Français

We get off to a great start with Trois Pièces brèves by Jacques Ibert, where the group lays its cards on the table with a spirited rendition full of characterful playing and virtuosic flourishes. Most of the music was new to me, including a delightfully charming suite by Darius Milhaud entitled La cheminée du roi René, written for a 1939 film by Raymond Bernard, Cavalcade d’amour. This music is exquisite, and the players bring such grace and poise to it that it’s been a pleasure to get to know this piece.

Perhaps my favourite item of the set, though, is the Wind Quintet by Paul Taffanel, which closes the first disc. The last movement, an energetic tarantella, is fiendishly difficult for every instrument, but all five players here despatch their lines with such panache that it all sounds so effortless. There’s extremely classy articulation, dynamics, and phrasing from everyone, although I can’t avoid singling out Gilbert Audin for some very fine bassoon playing!

Opening the second disc are the 6 Bagatelles by György Ligeti, where again virtuosity is on display in every bar. Apparently the final Capriccioso movement was censored at the premiere by the authorities, who refused to allow it to be played as it was ‘too dangerous’. Whatever they might have meant by that, in terms of pushing each instrument to the limit, dangerous is certainly the word! You wouldn’t know it from these performances, though, which are flawlessly executed.

Along with the Ligeti , probably the best-known piece here is Samuel Barber’s Summer Music, which again was just such a joy to listen to, containing some beautifully burnished oboe playing from François Leleux in the opening section.

Of course, because the wind quintet is made up of five such distinct timbres (one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn), it takes great skill to be able to balance these disparate voices successfully, and throughout this recording I was very impressed by this aspect of the quintet’s performance. Individual players come out of the texture where necessary, but all five are perfectly able to blend and sound as one unit – in particular I was constantly amazed at the ability of Radovan Vlatkovic to vary his horn tone according to the needs of the music. Witness his superbly smooth solo in the second movement of the Taffanel quintet, and compare it with the wonderfully robust sound he provides for the Ostinato movement of the Milhaud suite.

So, there’s much to enjoy here. I don’t think you could ask for five more accomplished players; every single one of them is at the top of his game, and for me at least there were several pleasing discoveries in terms of new repertoire. Highly entertaining!

Les Vents Français: French Music for Winds & 20th Century Wind Quintets

Les Vents Français (Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Paul Meyer (clarinet), Francois Leleux (oboe), Gilbert Audin (bassoon), Radovan Vlatkovic (horn))

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC