echoes bohemia wind chandos

Echoes of Bohemia: Czech Music for Wind
Pavel Haas (1899-1944)
Quintet for wind instruments, Op.10 (1929)
Antoine Reicha (1770-1836)
Quintet, Op.88 No.2 (1811-17)
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
Mládi, suite for wind instruments, JW.VII/10 (1924)
Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Sextet in E flat major for Winds, H.174 (1929)
Orsino Ensemble
Peter Sparks (bass clarinet), Llinos Owen (bassoon), James Baillieu (piano)
rec. 2022, St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London
Chandos CHSA5348 SACD [74]

The wind quintet – flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn – is the core medium for these four works, though only the first two are written for that exact combination. Leoš Janáček’s Mládí adds a bass clarinet, while the Martinů Sextet is for wind quintet plus piano.

The first four tracks contain Pavel Haas’s delightful Quintet of 1929.  It’s a skilfully written piece by this brilliant composer, who later became a tragic figure.  As a Czech Jew, he was sent by the Nazis to Terezín concentration camp in 1941, then on to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was murdered in 1944.  He was just 20 when he composed this Quintet, and its four strongly contrasted yet stylistically consistent movements proclaim him a major talent. At the Brno Conservatoire, he was a pupil of Janáček’s, who regarded him as the most gifted of his many students.  

As with all these works, the Orsini play with immense imagination and character, as well as having the technical expertise to cope with the considerable difficulties presented by, especially, the Haas and Janáček works.  Any woodwind player will be impressed by the little bursts of super-rapid tonguing that are a feature of Haas’s opening Preludio, while the third movement, a tiny Ballo eccentrico, is characterised brilliantly.

Those qualities of the Orsino Ensemble are all present in the Quintet (in F major) by Antoine Reicha (or Antonín Rejcha to give his original Czech spelling, as the booklet notes point out) though of course the period and style are completely different.  Reicha, a contemporary and friend of Beethoven, composed at least 25 wind quintets, some of almost Mahlerian dimensions. This one, fortunately, is built on a more modest scale, and has a good deal of charm, especially in the lighter second and fourth movements.  These are Mozartean in feel, and often have a Papageno-like cheerfulness and wit.  The performers bring out all the positive qualities of the music, and they build up the finale to a most satisfying conclusion, with some real death-defying tonguing from clarinettist Matthew Hunt!

Listening to Mladí, I was struck once again by how very quirky is Janáček’s instrumental writing.  In fact, his young pupil Haas wrote far more idiomatically for wind in his Quintet. But Mladí (‘Youth’ in Czech) is nonetheless a small masterpiece, written in that golden late period before the composer’s untimely death.  The work features the addition of a bass clarinet to the ensemble, and this has many advantages.  Apart from the simple availability of an extra colour, it adds great ‘oomph’ to the bass of the quintet, and allows the bassoon often to operate as a ‘baritone’ rather than a bass instrument (which in truth represents its character more accurately). As always with Janáček, the music is constantly changing, whether in tempo, dynamic or scoring, and this requires great understanding and unity of purpose from the players. The Orsini, once again, rise to all those challenges, bringing out the drama and the strong contrasts superbly, while maintaining at all times the finest balance and ensemble.

The Sextet of Bohuslav Martinů dates from his years in Paris in the 20s, and shows all the influences that naturally impressed themselves upon him in that environment, jazz, Stravinsky and Les Six being the most obvious. An enormously light-hearted and entertaining piece, it is also pretty demanding of the players; the brilliant Scherzo third movement is a tour de force for the flute and piano alone, and Adam Walker and James Baillieu do an absolutely stunning job. To be honest that is the most striking part of the piece, though the whole thing is a delight, all the way to the finale, which threatens to become an earnest fugal movement – but jacks that in and goes for just letting its hair down instead!

The woodwind instruments (and their honorary partner the horn) play an enormously important part in Czech music, whether it’s in the symphonies of Dvořák, the operas of Janáček or whatever.  Anyone who has heard Czech orchestras or ensembles knows how delicious the wind playing can be, expressive but with that natural plangent sound that is so beautiful.  The entirely British Orsino Ensemble nevertheless capture that quality magnificently in this genuinely outstanding disc, which has also been recorded perfectly by the Chandos engineers.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (September 2023)

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music