Reicha: Wind Quintets by Jonathan Snowden (Michael Thompson Wind Ensemble) (Naxos: 8.554228)
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Following the death of his father in 1771, the one-year-old AntonineReicha was left in the sole care of his mother. She, however, had neither theinclination nor the ability to look after him properly, and when he was elevenhe ran away to his paternal grandfather. Once there, he accepted the offer of aproper education and family life with his uncle Josef, a highly respectedcellist and the Konzertmeister at the celebrated court ofOettingen-Wallerstein. He therefore set out on a second journey alone and laterrecalled that his worst moment came at the border crossing at Regensburg.
Speaking little German and possessing no documentation, he waited for thecustoms officer to start his lunch and then feigned eye trouble, saying that hehad his papers somewhere and that he was travelling to a shrine in the hope ofa miraculous cure. The ruse worked and the bemused official let him across.
During the next three years Antoine learned to play the flute, violinand piano, and by the time Josef was appointed leader of the Elector'sorchestra in Bonn in 1785, his nephew was sufficiently accomplished to join himas a violinist and flautist. He can hardly have hoped for a better opportunity,for the Elector had a particular interest in music and employed the youngBeethoven as an organist and viola player. The two young musicians immediatelyestablished a firm friendship and by 1792 had made such progress in theircomposition lessons with Christian Neefe that both were offered the chance tostudy with Haydn in Vienna. Beethoven accepted, but Reicha remained in Bonnuntil 1794 when the city was occupied by Napoleon's troops. The Elector fled,and although Josef was too ill to travel he feared that Antonin would beattracted to the revolutionary ideas of the French army and insisted that heshould go to the relative safety of Hamburg. Reicha obeyed, but while the moveallowed him to abandon orchestral playing in favour of composition, teachingand philosophy, the damp climate affected his health and in 1799 he moved toParis. Before long, however, he decided that the uncertain political situationoutweighed his popularity in the city, and in 1801 he left for the relativestability of Vienna.
Although the earlier friendship between Beethoven and Haydn had nowsoured, Reicha enjoyed the friendship of both for the next seven years,translating when either received French visitors and regarding Haydn assomething of a role model. An ardent champion of change, he also developed hisown philosophy of music and aesthetics, arguing that 'old' forms such as fuguewould have a place in modern music only if composers also challenged acceptednorms such as the need for barlines or for works to start and end in the samekey. He then demonstrated some of his ideas in the Practische Beispiel, aset of 36 bizarre fugues for piano which include unusual rhythms, timesignatures and harmonies and which he published in 1803. This might have ledfurther, but in 1805 Napoleon's troops arrived in Vienna and when he returnedto Paris three years later Reicha found that he was unable to earn a livingexclusively as a composer. He continued to publish theoretical treatises onaesthetics, but had to find another source of income and, after changing hisname to Antoine Reicha (until now he had been know as Antonin Rejcha), began toearn a reputation as an effective and entertaining teacher. As such, his pupilsincluded Berlioz, Liszt, Franck and Gounod, and in 1818 his reputation as amember of the French musical establishment was confirmed by his appointment toteach composition at the Paris Conservatoire.
Today, however, Reicha is best known for his many quintets for flute,oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. This combination of instruments hadoccasionally been used before, but Reicha was to make the form his own,undertaking a careful study of each of the instruments after a preliminaryforay into the medium in 1811 and then writing the pair of 'incomparablysuperior works' which he published as the first two pieces in his Op. 88. Theremaining four quintets in the set were written in 1817, and all six werepublished and performed at the The?ótre Favart in Paris later that year. Thesewere welcomed as great novelties and the Parisian public awaited his threefurther sets of six - Op. 91 in 1818, Op. 99 in 1819 and Op. 100 in 1820- with great anticipation. Balzac refers to them in his novel, Lesemployees, and the Paris correspondent of the Allgemeine MusikalischeZeitung found it 'difficult to imagine a more discreet, livelier or moreeffective performance. If it is possible to surpass Haydn in quartets andquartet composition, this has been achieved by Reicha in these quintets.'
Parisians were not alone in their enthusiasm for wind quintets. 'Theycreated the same sensation throughout Europe,' recorded Reicha in hisautobiography. 'Witness the many letters and congratulations addressed to mefrom all quarters.' John Sainsbury, writing in England in 1825, wasparticularly impressed: 'No description, no imagination can do justice to thesecompositions. The effect produced by the extraordinary combinations ofapparently opposite-?¡toned instruments, added to Reicha's vigorous style ofwriting and judicious arrangement, have rendered these quintets the admirationof the musical world.' Such enthusiasm was inevitably tempered, however, bysome more critical voices. To Louis Spohr, Reicha was 'too profuse with hisideas', although he enjoyed the works' rich harmonies and effective scoring.
Berlioz found the works 'a little cold'. But few went as far as the Londoncritic who, after hearing a quintet played at a Philharmonic Society concert in1825, described it as 'one of the most intolerable pieces that we were evercondemned to hear'.
The players for whom the quintets were written were undoubtedly amongthe finest of their day. All, except for the bassoonist Antoine Henry hadstudied composition with Reicha himself, and the clarinettist Jacques-JulesBouffil was the only one who did not hold a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire.
'It is almost taken for granted that M. Vogt has not a peer on the oboe,' wroteAMZ; 'Every outstanding player of this instrument here owes his entiretraining to this artist.' Reicha's flautist, Joseph Guillou, was perhaps in theshadow of his contemporary, Jean-Louis Tulou, but as a teacher none of them wasthe equal of the quintet's horn player, Louis-Fran?ºois Dauprat. His Methodede Cor Alto et Cor Basse is one of the most comprehensive and intelligentlywritten tutors ever published, and while its exercises for the natural, orvalveless, horn are often fiendishly difficult, Reicha's horn lines show thatDauprat was clearly able to practise what he preached.
Like all but two of Reicha's wind quintets, Op. 91 No. 6, in C minor,begins with a slow introduction. In this case, this is a funeral march which isswept away by an extensive triple-metre Allegro vivace where all theplayers have a chance to shine. The second movement presents a song-like themefor oboe and then moves on into three rather free variations, the firstfeaturing the horn and the last recapitulating the opening theme on thebassoon. This is followed by a substantial Minuet in which one of thethemes is treated fugally. Although the horn opens the associated Trio, themost challenging material is reserved for the clarinet and bassoon, and afteran urgent opening the generally relaxed Finale offers furtheropportunities for virtuoso display.
The Allegro moderato which follows the chromatic and questioningslow introduction to Op. 88 No. 6