Virtuoso tour de force



Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall / Last Friday

In the sparsely populated world of wind chamber music, one work stands head and shoulders above the others in terms of frequency of performance, popularity and, arguably, musical quality - Gounod's Petite Symphonie. It was a fitting choice, therefore, as the opening work in the all-French programme by the Quintette a Vents des Solistes de l'Orchestre de Paris.

Gounod had originally conceived the work for nine wind players so the French wind quintet roped in four other musicians from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.

The performance was decidedly fuzzy around the edges, generally unkempt and, at times, taken at such a fast speed that in the generous space of the concert hall, clarity of detail was largely lost to the audience.

It was not the quintet's partnership with the extra performers that took the shine off the performance, but rather an excess of exuberance in playing the piece.

Such exuberance was safely channelled though, into a supremely refined and witty performance of L'heure du Berger by Jean Francaix. A virtuoso tour de force, if ever there was one, the quintet - accompanied this time by the discreet piano performance of Liu Jia - bubbled with joy and disciplined high spirits.

So perfectly coordinated were the players that it would seem invidious to single one out from the ensemble. But Philippe Berrod's clarinet cadenza in the second movement was so stunningly delivered that it earned a collective gasp of admiration from the enthusiastic audience.

Memories of the Gounod performance, however, haunted an uneven account of Paul Taffanel's Wind Quintet. Issues of musical balance and coherence in ensemble work persistently undermined what was the most serious-minded work in the programme. And the performance was not helped by a raucous and ill-disciplined horn.

The best was kept to the last.

Poulenc's Sextet is a classic example of the composer's split-personality music, lurching between an almost religious intensity, the rumbustiousness of the fairground and cloying sentimentality. This makes for entertaining listening, but it demands virtuosity from the performers and these French wind players showed why they are, in the words of their publicity material, "amongst the most well-known in Paris".

They brought out every centime of value from this dazzlingly colourful score. Each player was outstanding but a moment of almost manic musical chattering from the bassoon of Marc Trenel must not go unmentioned. Neither should the perfectly integrated and often brilliantly executed contribution from Liu be allowed to pass uncelebrated.

This was a genuinely astounding performance and boisterous screeches from an audience demanding an encore ended with the somewhat elusive Witches' Dance by Alexandre Tansman.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'Virtuoso tour de force'. Print Edition | Subscribe