Ensembl Mitdvest: Muczynski, Bach, Birtwistle, and Dvorak at Kastelskirken, Copenhagen

At Kastelskirken in the Kastellet fort in Copenhagen today (19.11.2017) a wind quintet drawn from the Danish Ensembl MidtVest played Robert Muczynski's woodwind quintet, opus 45; J. S. Bach's Partita in A minor for solo flute and basso continuo (bass clarinet); Harrison Birtwistle's Five Distances for Woodwind Quintet, and an arragenment by David Jolley of Antonin Dvorak's String Quartet # 10 in E minor, opus 51. With its white rectangular interior and tall mullioned windows with clear panes affording views of the 17th century buildings, with their steep tiled roofs, around the spacious raked-gravel courtyard inside the fort, and the Danish state flag with swallowtail streaming in the wind, as well as strollers and the occasional patrolling pair of soldiers on the grassy outer rampart, Kastelskirken was an atmospheric location for a concert on a blustery late-fall afternoon. The quintet is Charlotte Norholt, flute; Blanca Gleisner, oboe; Tommaso Longquich, clarinet; Niel Page, horn, and Yavor Petkov, bassoon.

I did not previously know American composer Robert Muczynski (1929-2010), and am delighted to have been introduced to him. The wind quintet is a super piece, in a melodic, more or less tonal style, with plenty of brio and humor at times, especially in the opening Allegro risoluto, but also beauty and seriousness, especially in the second movement (Andante). His style is personal rather than derivative, but to give a rough idea what to expect, one might cite some commonalities with impressionism, flecked with a little bluesiness in places (to my ear); Poulenc and other composers of that era; Rorem, William Schuman, and others of that ilk, even while I had a clear sense that he was aware of post-tonal developments and able to incorporate aspects of them where it made musical sense. A great pleasure to hear and I will seek out a recording and other chances to hear it again. An interview with Muczynski by classical DJ Bruce McDuffie is very much worth reading.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Bach also. Flutist Norholt used quite a bit more rubato than I'm used to in Bach, especially in the very familiar first movement of this piece, but it was not an impediment to enjoyment.

It's always good to finish off the first part of a program with a substantial, crowd-pleasing potboiler to send folks into intermission with, and the MidtVest did just that with Harrison Birtwistle's Five Distances. The English composer, born in 1934, is generally considered a pretty austere, uncompromising atonal composer, and this was no largo sweetota, but the piece has structure, recognizable recurring elements, variety and beauty. The MidtVests' performance seemed perhaps more expressive and intense, than the Boulez/Ensemble Intercontemporain performance I linked above, though it's hard to compare a live performance to a recording. The audience (which I estimate numbered around 70-90) seemed to have no trouble connecting with it, and it received a rousing round of applause.

After the break, an excellent performance of a familiar and well-loved Dvorak string quartet, arranged for wind quintet. At first I though it was missing something in the phrasing that could perhaps only be provided by the original strings, but fairly quickly settled in to enjoying a committed and successful performance.

An excellent concert all round, with the superb and, to me, unfamiliar (to me) Muczynksi and Birtwistle pieces real standouts. Kudos to the MidtVest for top-notch playing and for succeeding with an adventurous program.