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The New Israel Woodwind Quintet Plays Beethoven, Strauss, Poulenc, Ben-ari

New Israel Woodwind Quintet
Release Date: 06/14/2011 
Label:  Meridian Records   Catalog #: 84568   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Francis PoulencRichard StraussOhad Ben-AriLudwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Itamar GolanOhad Ben-Ari
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Israel Woodwind Quintet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 15 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

NEW ISRAEL WOODWIND QUINTET New Israel W Qnt; Itamar Golani 1 , Ohad Ben-Ari 2 (pn) MERIDIAN 84568 (75: 18)

1 BEETHOVEN Quintet in E?, op. 16. 1 R. STRAUSS Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Read more class="SUPER12">2 POULENC Sextet. 2 BEN-ARI Sextet

Mozart was duly proud of his piano-and-wind quintet, writing to his father in 1784 that he considered it his best work yet. A dozen years later, Beethoven would follow in his footsteps, writing his own piano-and-wind quintet in the same key and for the same complement of instruments: oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and piano. He would later transcribe the piece for piano quartet, keeping the same opus number, 16.

The New Israel Woodwind Quintet is not so new. The ensemble was founded in 1993, which makes it, in the U.S., at least, almost of legal drinking age. I have to admit, though, that my longtime favorite recording of the Beethoven Quintet is with an ensemble of players now old enough to be pickled—Heinz Holliger, Eduard Brunner, Klaus Thunemann, Hermann Baumann, and Alfred Brendel on a 1986 Philips CD that logically couples the Beethoven with the Mozart.

The Israel’s players—Dudu Carmel, oboe; Yevgeny Yehudin, clarinet; Mauricio Paez, bassoon; Chezy Nir, horn; and Itamar Golan, piano—make snappy work of Beethoven’s first movement, taking over a minute less (13:08) than Brendel and crew (14:14) with the repeat. Theirs is a more up-to-date view of Beethoven and probably more in keeping with the generally high spirits of this early (1796) work. The New Israel keeps the second-movement Andante moving along as well, again shaving very nearly a full minute off of Brendel and company (7:40 vs. 8:38). It’s only in the concluding Rondo that the Brendel team beats the Israel team, but by a photo finish of only three seconds (Brendel, 5:53; Israel, 5:56). Baumann’s horn in the Brendel version sounds just a bit more polished—or perhaps buffed in tone is what I mean to say—than Nir’s instrument in the current performance, but bassoonist Paez seems to be having some real fun with his part, and I like his jocular approach a bit more than Thunemann’s more po-faced expression. All in all, this is a nicely done Beethoven Quintet, which I think should be easily competitive with the best of them.

For the Poulenc Sextet, flutist Eyal Ein-Habar joins the group for a really raucous, laugh-out-loud romp through this popular work. Written in 1936 and revised in 1939, the score is a veritable catalog of the composer’s most characteristic stylistic elements—vulgar music-hall burlesque, mischievous hijinks, and a kind of dreamy, Satie-like, wistful lyricism. That famous photo of Poulenc where one side of his face is wrinkled in a naughty lustful leer while the other side is serious says it all. You can never be quite sure if his music is smirking or smiling at you.

In my Fanfare 34:4 review of Poulenc’s complete chamber music with winds performed by members of the Paris Orchestra, I described the Sextet as sounding something like Gershwin’s An American in Paris played backwards— A Frenchman in New York. Somehow, the image of Poulenc in Jerusalem makes the Sextet seem even more wickedly irreverent. We shouldn’t forget, however, that Poulenc also composed some sincerely heartfelt and very beautiful religious music. The Israel’s performance of the Sextet is as delightful as any I’ve heard, including that by the members of the Paris Orchestra.

I can’t really raise any objections to the playing in David Carp’s arrangement of Strauss’s Eulenspiegel , but for me, personally, it just doesn’t work. I’m too familiar with the original orchestral tone poem to get the sound of it out of my head when I listen to this reduction of it. And reduced it is, not just in size, but in the coloristic effects that can only be achieved in the composer’s scoring. Considering the modest scale and generally humorous vein of this work compared to Strauss’s other tone poems, Eulenspiegel calls for an unusually large orchestra with a considerable array of percussion, including snare drum, triangle, and a large ratchet. A wind sextet with piano (the same complement of instruments as in the Poulenc, though Ohad Ben-Ari now takes over at the piano) can’t really reproduce the expected effects or compensate for the absence of them. Other all-wind arrangements have been recorded, including versions by the United States Navy Band and the University of Illinois Concert Band, though, frankly, I’m at a loss to understand why.

In addition to playing piano in the Strauss, Ohad Ben-Ari also performs in his own composition that closes the disc, the Sextet for Piano and Winds. No date is given for the piece, but I have to say that after reading Ben-Ari’s own words to the effect that he does not consider himself a composer per se and that he has shifted his interest away from classical music into the exploration of other, nonclassical, musical genres, I was quite surprised by this beautifully crafted and musically appealing piece. Ben-Ari is Israeli-born and studied piano with Pnina Salzman and composition with Joseph Dorfman at the Tel Aviv University School of Music. Much of his Sextet is in what some would call a postmodernist style, though tongue-in-cheek I sometimes like to refer to it as a post-apocalyptic style. You would never know from listening to this lovely work that the musical upheavals of the mid 20th century had ever happened. Passages pass by that glance back over that period all the way back to Strauss and Rachmaninoff. Much modern music written by those who do consider themselves composers is nowhere near as enjoyable as is this piece by a professed non-composer. Talent will out, as they say.

Strictly speaking, the recording isn’t brand new, though perhaps it’s just now being released. It was made in the Jerusalem Music Center in 2006, which, given the evidence of the sound, I’d have to say is an excellent acoustic venue, more than can be said of Tel-Aviv’s difficult Mann Auditorium. Though I’d have preferred something other than the Eulenspiegel arrangement, that aside, this is a most highly recommendable release.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Sextet for Piano, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn by Francis Poulenc
Performer:  Itamar Golan (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Israel Woodwind Quintet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1932-1939; France 
Venue:  Jerusalem Music Centre 
Length: 7 Minutes 33 Secs. 
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28 by Richard Strauss
Performer:  Ohad Ben-Ari (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Israel Woodwind Quintet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1894-1895; Germany 
Venue:  Jerusalem Music Centre 
Length: 15 Minutes 41 Secs. 
Sextet for wind quintet & piano by Ohad Ben-Ari
Performer:  Ohad Ben-Ari (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Israel Woodwind Quintet
Period: Contemporary 
Venue:  Jerusalem Music Centre 
Length: 15 Minutes 8 Secs. 
Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Horn in E flat major, Op. 16 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Performer:  Itamar Golan (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Israel Woodwind Quintet
Period: Classical 
Written: 1796; Vienna, Austria 
Venue:  Jerusalem Music Centre 
Length: 13 Minutes 7 Secs. 

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