R. STRAUSS Wind Serenade in E?, op. 7. MOZART Wind Serenade in B?, K 361/370a, “Gran Partita” • Gregory Wolynec, cond; Gateway Ch Ens • SUMMIT 538 (SACD: 63:40)
No sooner had I completed reviewing a disc of Richard Strauss’s early Piano Quartet and sonatas for cello and violin than this CD arrived containing the 17-year-old composer’s 1881 Serenade in E?-Major for 13 Winds. It’s a singleRead more movement that lasts just over 10 minutes. But in terms of scoring, it’s quite ambitious for such a young composer. Its instrumentation—two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, four horns, two bassoons, contrabassoon or tuba, and, only in the final two measures, double bass—would pose challenges, not only of ensemble blend and balance, but of notation, for even a more seasoned composer. But Strauss’s father, being a highly accomplished horn player, would undoubtedly have taught his son the tricks of the trade.
It’s remarkable that Strauss’s writing for winds at such an early stage already exhibits the distinctive sound that would come to characterize his wind writing in his much later tone poems and operas. Yet at the same time—listen from about 6:53 on—Brahms’s influence on the young composer cannot be denied. If you counted 14 instruments listed above and are wondering why the serenade is said to be for only 13 players, it’s because the double bass, which sits out the entire piece until the last two measures, is almost always omitted.
Mozart’s “Gran Partita” Serenade is also for 13 wind instruments, but of quite a different complement: two oboes, two clarinets, two basset horns, two bassoons, four horns, and double bass (this time counted), sometimes replaced by contrabassoon. Mozart’s work comes from a different tradition than Strauss’s, that of the Harmonie or band of wind instruments that was typically engaged for outdoor recreational music during the 18th century. It remained for Mozart to transform this generally lightweight type of serenade, which was essentially the entertainment music for an occasion (divertimento and cassation were of a similar genre), into something of more serious musical content.
True to form, the “Gran Partita” Serenade follows the conventions of the day for its genre. It’s in seven movements with a central Adagio framed by two Menuettos, both with double trios, a penultimate theme-and-variations, and a concluding Rondo. The originality of the work lies not in its form but in its content, which is endowed with a richness of texture and a complexity in the working out of thematic materials that were, up to that time, unprecedented.
Performing wind works is treacherous business, fraught with perils of tuning, balance, blend, and a two-pronged pitchfork. Prong number one is that wind instruments in general, but especially horns, can behave badly, like disobedient and disruptive children. Prong number two is more complicated. Instruments having mostly cylindrical bores, like clarinets and flutes, don’t always get along well with their cousins having mostly conical bores, like oboes and bassoons. Add to that the different materials of construction—wood vs. metals—and single reeds vs. double reeds, and you get sound waves of clashing timbres, registrations, partials, and overtones that can set up harmonic vibrations, which, in the worst of circumstances, can have a canceling effect on each other. This is undoubtedly why many courses in orchestration warn that while it’s OK to have the clarinet and oboe duet with each other, it’s not advisable to have them double each other at the unison or octave. And indeed you will find this advice followed in a high percentage of orchestral scores.
The trick is to achieve homogeneity within and among an assemblage made up of essentially heterogeneous components, while in seeming contradiction, simultaneously attempting to achieve said E pluribus unum even as each instrument is coaxed to speak with its own distinctive voice. All of which leads me to the Gateway Chamber Ensemble and conductor Gregory Wolynec. Together they manage a matrimonial bliss in these two serenades achieved only by the very best wind bands. What I noticed first was that each instrument is pitch-true unto itself, while the full ensemble seems to be micro-tuned in a way that reduces to near zero the chances of an outbreak of hostilities between oscillating waves of out-of-phase overtone series, thus succeeding in resolving this paradox rather more elegantly than some others I’ve heard.
This I tell you as possessor of the accursed Princess-and-the-Pea ear that hears the slightest off-center deviations in pitch. But what you’re probably more interested in knowing is how these performances stack up against the competition, which, in the Mozart especially, is fierce. Of the recorded performances I know of the Mozart—which include those by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, and Consortium Classicum (its later version on MDG), I would pick the new Gateway Chamber Ensemble out of the pack, not only for its refined playing, but for finding that elusive balance between the music’s high-spirited playfulness and its sensuous soulfulness. Merriment and melancholy mix in matched measure in Mozart’s masterpiece.
In the Strauss, competition is less heated. The Netherlands Wind Ensemble under the direction of Edo de Waart turns in a fine performance on Philips, but the 1971 recording is showing its age and can’t go head-to-head with the stunning definition and refulgent sonic bloom of Summit’s superb SACD. For wind playing par excellence, this release receives the strongest recommendation.
My favorite MozartMay 18, 2012By Richard H. (Glendale, AZ)See All My Reviews"This has always been my favorite work by Mozart. This is a wonderful performance and SACD recording. I have several recordings of the Partita and this one is in a tie for first place. If you love this piece it belongs in your library. The Strauss is okay but it pales next to Mozart. I suspect it wouldn't sell were it not paired up with K361."Report Abuse