At the Wigmore Hall, London, music for wind quintet by Harrison Birtwistle, Elliott Carter, Heinz Holliger, John Cage and Blaise Ubaldini. with members of Ensemble Intercontemporain - Sophie Cherrier (flute), Martin Adámek (clarinet), Jens McManama (horn), Didier Pateau (oboe) and Paul Riveaux (bassoon). Wind quartets are great for sonorous harmony, but wind quintets are stranger beasts. The horn changes things, but that in itself opens out intriguing new possibilities. Composers with a quirky frame of mind can do very interesting things. I'd come to hear Harrison Birtwistle's Five Distances for Five Instruments (1992) a piece that needs to be heard live since it plays with space and distance. The work begins conventionally enough with the flute, singing freely, the bassoon answering. Will a pattern emerge ? In the middle stands the horn, breaking up symmetry. I was delighted that from where I was sitting, I couldn't see the horn, but heard it poking its way into the ensemble. The other instruments call to each other in different pairings, but the horn interjects, pushing each instrument to operate as an individual. They call out into the performance space, as if trying to get away. Eventually some sort of equilibrium is found: horn and bassoon fall into step together and the others follow and a pattern is restored. A short but extremely pithy piece, a typical Birtwistle puzzle.
This whole programme seemed to have been devised like a puzzle of interconnecting symmetries and non-symmetries. Bassoon (Paul Riveaux) and horn (Jens McManama) returned, singly, with Elliott Carter's Retracing for bassoon (2002) and Retracing II for horn (2009). Hearing both together demonstrated the individual nature of each instrument. The bassoon lends itself to the virtuoso challenges of a very short piece, the horn needs more time to "breathe". The oboe (Didier Pateau) starred, too, in Heinz Holliger's Sonata for oboe (1956-7), a joyous early piece, in which Holliger shows his love for the instrument and its capabilities. Flute (Sophie Cherrier) and clarinet (Martin Adámek) get their moment too, with Elliott Carter's Esprit rude/Esprit doux (1984). Embedded cryptically into it are the letters of Boulez's name. "Two personnages", as Pierre-Laurent Aimard, has described the way the two voices interact in counter to each other, "like in Bach".As Paul Griffiths writes in his programme notes, "This four note set... has the useful property that any interval can be derived from it (reappearing) in its original form to close what might be regarded as a four minute scene between two characters, or between two characters of the one".
To conclude, John Cage's Music for Wind Instruments (1938) and Blaise Ubaldini In the backyard (2017) . The former is a relatively straightforward piece which features first different sub-groups, then brings them together for the finale. Ubaldini's piece picks up on the cheeky good humour of Carter and Birtwistle's aphorisms. the players grunt and stamp their feet, their bodies supplying percussion. Five instruments with added extras, I guess.