Calefax Reed Quintet – the Second Coffee Concert 2014 – 2015

Coffee Concert 16 November 2014 Calefax Reed Quintet

Review by Andrew Polmear

It was wonderful to be back in the round after the enforced use of a stage last time. Or rather, we were in a square with raked seating to north and south and just two rows of seats to east and west. This gave better sightlines than we have ever had before and was voted, in my small survey, the best arrangement so far.

There was much about Calefax that was engaging from the moment they walked on: they looked happy to be there, serious but intending to enjoy themselves, every one in a different suit that matched his personality: the white pinstripes worn by one player were pure Chicago 1920s and, yes, he was the saxophonist. Also, no chairs. We are used to players standing but not moving the way these men did: each swaying to the music, none more gracefully than the bass clarinettist, tall and slender like his instrument. Two players duetting would move closer to each other; the oboeist, on a solo, would step back to pit himself against the other four. They didn’t seem to need to read their parts; they knew these pieces backwards and it showed.

And their musicianship was astounding. Each player a virtuoso in his own right, they achieved a balance that I would not have thought possible with five such disparate instruments: oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet and bassoon. Every note was exquisitely phrased, every passage blended into what the other four were doing.

But what were they doing arranging pieces by the great masters who never intended them for reed quintet? They started with Bach’s Concerto for Solo Organ BWV 596, and one can say for sure that Bach would not have minded one bit. He himself had transcribed it from Vivaldi’s concerto for two violins and cello. Great music, played with understanding, can survive transcription for other instruments and doing so can even bring out aspects of the music not previously apparent. As written by Bach this is a complex piece and some of the interweaving subtleties would have been hard to follow when played on an organ. With Calefax the deepest innards of the piece were clear. However, speaking of great music, by the interval I had one reservation: Mozart’s Fantasy for Mechanical Organ and Beethoven’s Variations on God Save the King are not great works and my fear was that Calefax had found itself forced to limit itself to minor works. Indeed, Beethoven’s string quartets, for instance, are so specifically for string quartet that transcribing them for reed quintet would seem unwise.

The second half of the programme dispelled all fears. I know Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin as a piano piece but for me it grew hugely in stature played by Calefax – the attack, the whimsy, the plangent solos, the plunging and soaring runs by one instrument at a time, were thrilling. And An American in Paris was a triumph. It was written for symphony orchestra plus celesta, saxophones, and automobile horns, but Calefax filled the Corn Exchange with melody and rhythm and nothing seemed to be missing. Gershwin himself referred to it as “a light, jolly piece”. If he’d heard that final glorious reprise of the “jazz” theme in the final section, when Raaf Hekkema finally let rip with his sax at full blast, even Gershwin might have been persuaded that it was great music.