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The prize-winning Thalia Ensemble is an inspiring young group excelling in performance on 'period' instruments. This debut recording presents two of Antoine Reicha's opulent wind quintets, recognized across Europe as the pinnacle of their genre and an overnight sensation when they were first performed in Paris in the early nineteenth century.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
No description, no imagination can do justice to these compositions. The effect produced by the extraordinary combinations of apparently opposite-toned instruments, added to Reicha’s vigorous style of writing and judicious arrangement, have rendered these quintets the admiration of the musical world.
Thus wrote the English publisher and lexicographer John Sainsbury shortly after Reicha’s wind quintets were first introduced to the public. The inaugural concerts of the 24 quintets (Opp 88, 91, 99 and 100) took place across three seasons during 1817–19 in the Théâtre Favart’s splendid lobby, and the events quickly became the rendez-vous obligé of the Parisian elite. Princesses, counts and ambassadors, musical cognoscenti and entrepreneurs, listened enraptured to these novel works, played by the flautist Joseph Guillou (1787–1853), oboist Gustave Vogt (1781–1870), clarinettist Jacques-Jules Bouffil (1783–1868), bassoonist Antoine-Nicolas Henry (1777–1842) and the group’s instigator, the horn player Louis-François Dauprat (1781–1868). The fruit of assiduous labour on the composer’s part, the quintets were an overnight sensation, and were recognized across Europe as the apogee of their genre.
The son of a town piper, Antoine Reicha (born Antonín Rejcha in Prague in 1770) was destined through personal fate and political upheaval to a peripatetic life, but one full of exhilaration in the music capitals of Europe. His father died before he was one, and at the age of ten he ran away to live with his grandfather. It was from his uncle and adoptive father Josef that he learnt the violin and piano; he also received instruction on the flute, which would become his main instrument. By 1785, when the family moved to Bonn, Antoine had picked up sufficient skill to play both violin and flute in the Hofkapelle under his uncle’s direction. There he struck up a friendship with Beethoven, a fellow composition student of Christian Gottlob Neefe. Two years later, Reicha conducted his own first symphony and some opera scenes, and in 1789 he entered Bonn University. The French occupation of Bonn triggered a move to Hamburg, where his first opera was performed; he took a vow never to perform again, but instead dedicate himself to composition.
In 1799 Reicha moved to Paris, in the expectation of operatic success. But despite well-received performances of symphonies, an overture and some operatic scenes, his attempt to establish himself in opera failed. Distraught, he left for Vienna. Up to this time his work had shown the influence of Nicolas Dalayrac, André Grétry and his own uncle Josef; now, inspired by his close acquaintances Haydn and Beethoven, he would follow in the Classical Viennese tradition. Successful in gaining patronage among the Viennese aristocracy, he also turned his hand to writing composition treatises and pedagogical works, though he declined a post as teacher and Kapellmeister to Prince Louis Ferdinand.
Reicha maintained contact with Parisian musicians, and in December 1805 he welcomed to Vienna members of Napoleon’s musical entourage, including Pierre Baillot, Luigi Cherubini and Gustave Vogt. But the Napoleonic wars thwarted his ambitions in both Vienna and Prague, and he decided to return to Paris in 1808. There his operas enjoyed only middling success, but he gained a considerable reputation as a composer of instrumental music and instructor in composition. Even before he was appointed professor of counterpoint and fugue at the Paris Conservatoire in 1818, he could boast a distinguished roster of students, including the violin virtuosi Baillot, François Habeneck and Pierre Rode (all personal friends), and the Count de Sèze, who was responsible for arranging his Conservatoire appointment.
Having been a flute player, Reicha naturally befriended wind players: four of the five who premiered his quintets had also been his composition pupils. Each held a prominent position in a theatre orchestra, and all but the bassoonist Henry also taught at the Conservatoire. At that time it was common practice for virtuosi to showcase their technical prowess by performing their own compositions; in addition, Conservatoire professors were obliged to supply études and concours solos for their students.
While it is not entirely true that, as Reicha claimed in his autobiography, ‘there was a dearth of good music for wind instruments’, his explanation that ‘composers knew little of their technique’ was well founded. His experience as a flute player paid dividends, as did his love of mathematical puzzles and musical conundrums. Though lost on a free Romantic spirit like Berlioz, Reicha’s logical precision, efficiency, and strictness were essential to devising the means of crafting effective compositions that integrated five wind instruments, each with its unique character and technical anomalies. While living in Bonn in his teens he may already have encountered Franz Anton Rosetti’s Wind Quintet, the first such work to be written (some time around 1780). A flurry of wind quintets appeared in the early years of the nineteenth century, so interest in the genre was definitely in the air when Reicha started exploratory work around 1814. Giuseppe Cambini had written three such pieces around 1800; the bassoonist François René Gebauer contributed another three to perform with his brothers; the oboist and pupil of Vogt Henri Brod wrote three in 1815; and another nine works by Franz Danzi date from around 1820.
On Reicha’s own admission, it took assiduous energy and numerous discarded drafts to craft a formula that would both accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the ensemble and serve to build a repertoire of enduring value. More than any other composers who wrote for the combination, Reicha took wind instruments seriously and was thus able to produce pieces that were worthy counterparts to the Classical Viennese four-movement string quartet. The enthusiasm they generated is reflected in their availability in editions from publishing houses in Paris, Cologne, Mainz, Copenhagen and, from Nikolaus Simrock, Bonn. As well as being one of the most important music publishers in Germany at the time, Simrock was both a personal friend of Reicha’s and a horn player, so he would have taken the closest interest in the quintets.
Each of Reicha’s 24 quintets comprises four movements, in the standard Classical formula developed by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The opening sonata-form movement is preceded by a slow introduction, and usually closes with a substantial coda. The slow movement and minuet (or scherzo) and trio are occasionally reversed in order, and the last movement returns to the vigorous energy of the first, often in a sonata-rondo form. Reicha’s melodic style is Mozartian in flavour, but spiced with subtle chromatic tinges and quirky syncopations.
Just as they are models of how to handle each instrument, so Reicha’s quintets sketch the musical personalities of players he knew well. The flute, leading in the upper register, is constantly agile; the oboe responds with perky melodies and lyrical phrases; the versatile clarinet, switching between instruments in C, B flat or A according to the work’s prevailing tonality, exploits its full range in passagework and harmonic fillers; bassoon and horn share the responsibility of providing the music’s harmonic base while still engaging in the thematic dialogue. This is demonstrated beautifully in the Andante of the Quintet in G major, Op 88 No 3: as the movement unfolds, each instrument contributes its own, idiomatic ornamental filigree around the simple profile of the opening phrase.
While Reicha’s astute planning provided fertile terrain for the cultivation of fresh melodies and surprising harmonies, stylistically these works remain firmly planted in Classical gestural style: there is little occasion for Romantic extravagance. Some of his other works may exemplify a more innovative and adventurous spirit, but here he followed the nature of the five wind instruments: their combined technical capabilities dictated the operable keys, and also delimited to some extent the music’s dynamic and expressive range.
By the 1830s, the wind quintet had had its day. In Balzac’s 1838 novel Les Employés, a fictitious clarinettist at the Opéra-Comique tries to entice a friend to a soirée with the promise of hearing a wind quintet by Reicha; the friend responds that he would rather read the score—perhaps an allusion to the composer’s reputation as a theorist. Berlioz, who had studied with Reicha and respected his teacher’s open-mindedness, was even more pointed in his critique. When reviewing a performance of a quintet in 1833, he paraphrased the aphorism attributed to Fontenelle that had epitomized the vexed Frenchman’s response to senseless Italian instrumental sonatas: ‘O Quintette de Reicha, que me veux-tu? Of the work, the less said the better.’
The flourishing of the wind quintet coincided with turning points in the development of each instrument, developments that would affect all Reicha’s players. Guillou played a six-keyed flute by Godfroy, but within ten years of the sensational Théâtre Favart concerts, his conservatism would cost him dear: in 1829 he was replaced at the Conservatoire by Jean-Louis Tulou, who favoured flutes with more extensive keywork. Bouffil played clarinets by Iwan Müller, whose important mechanical adaptations from German builders had a lasting impact on the design of all woodwind. Vogt played an oboe with just four keys in Reicha’s works, but in the 1820s he switched to an instrument with additional keys that enabled easier negotiation of the demands of more-chromatic music.
The horn underwent the greatest changes. The only instrument of the group not strictly a woodwind, it was a regular part of the courtly Harmoniemusik ensembles to which the quintet owed its origins. The natural or hand horn, with its mixture of open and stopped notes, blended well with the woodwind, and was equally adept at melodic and harmonic functions. Because its tone production was based on the harmonic series, it required the most careful treatment. In the first movement of the Quintet in G major, Op 88 No 3, for instance, its role is almost exclusively harmonic and supportive until the recapitulation, when Reicha ventures to place it on a more equal footing in the interplay of melodic material among the instruments. Dauprat was a champion of the natural (valveless) horn, whose wide range of tone colours derived from the use of different crooks and hand-stopping techniques, and he resisted the adoption of mechanized instruments. In his method (published c1824) he wrote of how ‘the more the new inventions produce equality among all the sounds, the more the characters, colours and timbres of the individual crooks would be distorted and confused.’ But piston and valve horns were the future. Yet Reicha’s lyrical horn writing is compromised and the balance of the group is disturbed by the use of the more powerful instruments that were developed over the course of the nineteenth century.
In fact the loss of variety of tone colour and character that Dauprat deplored was true for all these instruments as they evolved in the nineteenth century. The fact that Reicha’s quintets were tailored so closely to the instruments of his time is part of the reason they fell out of favour as quickly as enthusiasm for them had peaked; and, indeed, why the wind quintet entered a fallow period up to about 1870, when Paul Taffanel revived the configuration, but with instruments that by then were more or less as we know them today.
As well as the quintets, Reicha composed a sinfonia concertante for the same players in 1819, and chamber works for individual members with strings. The Adagio for cor anglais and wind dates from the same period. The use of the cor anglais in place of the oboe has a distinctive effect on the sonority of the wind quintet. Reicha’s writing for the cor anglais is lyrical in inspiration, and like other Romantic composers he emphasized the instrument’s upper register. He had already written a short scène et récitatif for cor anglais in 1811; Vogt apparently had a particular fondness for it, as he adapted it in two of his own arrangements of well-known opera themes.
It was doubtless the cor anglais’ unique appearance, with curved leather-covered body and bulbous bell, as much as its plaintive tone that inspired poetic associations with pastoral and melancholic subjects. Vogt’s performances on the cor anglais attracted special attention from the critics, including Berlioz, who singled out his rendition of the love-sick romance in a pantomime version of Dalayrac’s opera Nina as one of the most memorable musical encounters of his first year in Paris. Later, in 1829, Vogt had the honour of premiering the delicious ‘Ranz des vaches’ in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Reicha’s Adagio bears the characteristics of Sicilian shepherd songs (cf the siciliana), which likewise places it in the pastoral tradition. In the 24 quintets each player is given an equal share in the dialogue; here Reicha directs a spotlight on to Vogt, and even indulges him with a solo cadenza.
Geoffrey Burgess © 2015