It’s hard not to drool over the idea of a Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet. Michael Hasel (flute), Andreas Wittmann (oboe), Walter Seyfarth (clarinet), Marion Reinhard (bassoon), and Fergus McWilliam (horn) are members of arguably the world’s best orchestra, one that bears the stamp of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, and now Simon Rattle. Unlike, say, a string quintet, their five instruments offer a world of different textures and colors. It’s too bad that the repertoire doesn’t boast more works by such woodwind masters as Beethoven, Berlioz, Dvorák, Mahler, and Sibelius. But in their second Celebrity Series appearance Friday at Jordan Hall (the first was in 2010), the Berliners did very nicely with Mozart, Haas, Ibert, Milhaud, and Françaix.
The first half of the mostly 20th-century program had a somber cast to it. The three Mozart Fantasies for Mechanical Organ were commissioned by Count Josef von Deym’s Müllersche Kunstgalerie in Vienna to be played during its memorial exhibition for Austrian field marshal Ernst Gideon von Laudon. Mozart can hardly have been enamored of the flute-playing mechanical clock, but what he produced is by no means background music. The K. 594 Fantasy begins in the stealthy manner of his late piano concertos before skittering and growing playful; the K. 608 Fantasy is wreathed in fugues. The arrangements by Hasel for wind quintet were an intriguing combination of complex and contentious.
Pavel Haas’s 1929 Wind Quintet seems to look ahead to World War II and the Czech composer’s death in Auschwitz in 1944, particularly in the intensity of its “Preghiera” — “Prayer” — second movement. The “Ballo eccentrico” third movement features the squeaky E-flat clarinet, but this is a spiky, hard-edged piece redolent of Janácek (one of Haas’s teachers), and the Berliners conveyed its dark outlook, though its limited register remained problematic.
Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
The French pieces that followed intermission — Jacques Ibert’s “Trois pièces brèves” (1930), Darius Milhaud’s “La cheminée di roi René” (1939), and Jean Françaix’s Wind Quintet No. 1 (1948) — were perhaps too much of a good thing, with their quirky tonalities and polished surfaces. The Milhaud, whose title means “The Hearth of King René,” is actually part of a score written for the Middle Ages section of the 1940 film “Cavalcade d’amour”; it offers jugglers, a river joust led by the oboe, a hunt with piccolo and horn, and a lullaby-like madrigal-nocturne. The highlight here was the moody sarabande of “Les maousinglade.”
Françaix’s chirpy quintet moves from a soused waltz to a sinuous “Tema e variazoni” and finally a quickstepping “Tempo di marcia francese.” There’s a clarinet hint of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and soon the music is dancing like the unhatched chicks in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” That gives the musicians a chance to loosen up, and the Berliners did.
They did even better in the two encores, both of which paid homage to America. Gunther Schuller’s bluesy, jazzy 1945 Suite for Wind Quintet nods to Milhaud and Poulenc but also swings. And Kazimierz Machala's “American Folk Suite” found the five players getting downright rowdy as they ranged from “Oh! Susannah” to “Camptown Races,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”