Concert review: Spotlight on unsung, industrious wind quintet

While violinists and pianists get the most attention by general audiences here, it should not be forgotten that wind and brass players have made a quantum leap in furthering their art. The award-winning EDQ wind quintet, formed in 2011, is undoubtedly the most visible and active of professional wind chamber ensembles in Singapore.

Its 70-minute programme of 20th and 21st century music, Deconstructed, held at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Thursday, was a microcosm of the marathon concerts by the London Sinfonietta recently presented at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts. Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti's Six Bagatelles (1953) were the most familiar pieces played this evening. These were transcriptions of piano pieces from Musica Ricercata, each movement based on a fixed number of notes in a chromatic scale.

Rapid reflexes were called for in the first piece, contrasted with the slickness of articulation in the third piece where Cheryl Lim's flute smoothly glided over a sea of running figures. The spirit and influences of Bela Bartok hovered over each number, the solemn fifth piece being a memorial to the composer who regularly appended the word mesto (sad) to his music. The set closed with humour and cheek, the wit of which was ardently captured.

Next, French horn player Alan Kartik gave an imperious solo display in Olivier Messaien's Appel Interstellaire (Interstellar Call) from the massive 12-movement symphony Des Canyons Aux Etoiles (From The Canyon To The Stars) of 1974. Playing in pitch darkness, the bell of the horn was directed into the grand piano, with the resonance of its strings adding a spectral echo to the impassioned and highly virtuosic brass soliloquy.

In the world premiere of Singaporean Liew Kongmeng's Partitional (2014), the five players were widely spaced apart. Oboist Leow Rui Qing and clarinettist Benjamin Wong played from behind the audience, creating an antiphonal effect with bassoonist Emerald Chee, Lim and Kartik on the floor stage. Long held single notes, sometimes in unison and often with narrow pitched intervals, permeated the air and the general mood was one of strange calm.

In Estonian Arvo Part's Quintettino (1964), the emphasis was on generating a range of varied tonal splashes in its three very brief movements. Short repeated staccato bursts and slow sustained notes coloured the first two pieces, and the rhythmic finale ended with a musical in-joke, all the funnier when crowned with wrong closing cadences.

Guest pianist Nicholas Loh garnered the solo spotlight in four pieces from Makrokosmos Book II (1973) by the American George Crumb. Altering the piano's timbre by placing paper on, manually strumming and striking the strings were all part of the pianist's arsenal in a showing that would have made avant-gardist Margaret Leng Tan proud.

As if to repay the audience's patience for sitting through a host of new-isms, the final work was not just gratifyingly tonal but unabashedly populist. Dutch composer Leo Smit's Piano Sextet (1932) predates the far better known Sextet by Poulenc, but shares with it a similar warmth and congeniality. Its insouciance and gaiety were made light work of by the industrious quintet and Loh in a performance that was lapped up by both players and audience alike. EDQ's next outing should be worth waiting for.

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