Bassoonist Marc Goldberg reflects on the complexities and colors of woodwind chamber music ahead of the third performance on the Chamber Music Society’s Summer Evenings series.
Nicky Swett: What are some of the challenges of getting groups of diverse woodwind instruments to sound well together?
Marc Goldberg: We need a unique blend of soloist and accompanist in each player. Everybody takes the main voice at some point or other, and nobody is relegated to a sheer supporting role. I think about a piece like Beethoven’s Piano-Wind Quintet (Op. 16), where in the second movement everybody has a short, aria moment. Each player can be the leader, accompanied by the piano, and then stand back, be really delicate, and play in a way that's supportive and no longer soloistic.
NS: How did the Czech composer Anton Reicha (1770–1836) change expectations for woodwind chamber music?
MG: Most people consider Reicha the father of the woodwind quintet, and he was really a revolutionary. He had a mission to make that instrumentation on par with the string quartet—he wrote at least 24 woodwind quintets. They are generally virtuoso pieces for every instrument, and there are a lot of different themes to challenge every player. One of the criticisms of him was that there was almost too much material, but I think that he was trying to push boundaries to say, “here's what's possible for every instrument in this group.”
NS: How does György Ligeti, in his Bagatelles for Woodwind Quintet, take advantage of the variety of sounds that is possible with this instrumentation?
MG: Ligeti's incredibly adept at exploring pairings and colors. For example, in the third bagatelle, instruments pass off light septuplets underneath all these melodies in different pairings above, this ethereal blending of sounds. At the same time, the fifth bagatelle, the memorial to Bela Bartók, is deep and dense and really intense. When I first ran into this work, I didn't expect it to be as tonal and sonorous as it was. I thought it was going to be sort of dissonant on the ear, and it is complicated, but it's also strangely easy to apprehend.
NS: Francis Poulenc and Jean Françaix, in their works for woodwind quintet and piano, write music that is often light-hearted. How do their musical senses of humor differ?
MG: I see Poulenc having a fantastic time in Paris in the 1920s with all of the musicians and painters and writers and dancers. His Sextet for Piano and Winds has that sense of fun: a late night out, the bar tab is open. Even in the middle movement, we have a typical slow start, but soon enough we’re back to this up-tempo, incredibly cheerful mood.
On the other hand, Françaix said that he expressed deep things in a light-hearted way in his music, and I don't hear the same simple kind of joy that I hear in Poulenc. Françaix's writing is tremendously challenging and quite amusing, in many places really wild, but somehow not quite as carefree. It's like seeing a clown, but not being amused. It's wonderful, but there's a tinge of something uneasy underneath it.
NS: What’s fun about playing wind quintets?
MG: The sounds of the instruments themselves change enormously with different pairings. One of the things that I always find interesting and exciting is to meet somebody halfway and find, say, a clarinet-bassoon sound that you may never have had before. Something that's fun about this upcoming concert is getting together with players like this. Some are old friends, some will be new friends, but I find it energizing and enlightening to meet people and come together to look at these pieces in a new way.
Hear music of Reicha, Beethoven, Ligeti, Françaix, and Poulenc on the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Summer Evenings concert on July 13, 2022. For more information, visit chambermusicsociety.org.
Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.