“Alchemy (noun): Medieval forerunner of chemistry; in particular, with attempts to convert base metals into gold.” Les Vents Français are musical alchemists. Few would stake strong claims that the repertoire for wind quintet repertoire is anything special (Nielsen’s Quintet excepted). If not quite leaden, some of the quintets and sextets with piano performed at Wigmore Hall were rather humdrum, works by second rank composers, sometimes aping the style of the greats. Yet this ensemble, whose members include some starry names, performed so stylishly that their recital shimmered under a golden haze.

Les Vents Français © Georg Thum | wildundleise.de
Les Vents Français
© Georg Thum | wildundleise.de

Louise Farrenc, who studied piano with Moscheles and Hummel and composition with Reicha, became the first woman to be appointed professor of piano at the Paris Conservatoire in 1842. Her Sextet for piano and winds in C minor is believed to be the first of its type, but is clearly modelled on Mozart’s Quintet in E flat, with the addition of a flute. There is charm aplenty in the opening Allegro, gracefully applied by the ensemble, while the Andante sostenuto is imitation Mozart – a clarinet melody which is passed to the piano for an extended solo. Eric Le Sage (Emmanuel Pahud’s regular recital partner) was a reliable presence, though he could have taken a more proactive role in this sextet which, in the classical fashion, is more piano with wind accompaniment. Certainly, Farrenc treats the winds as an homogenous group rather than teasing out individual characteristics, so it wasn’t until Ludwig Thuille’s Sextet in B flat major that the different qualities of Les Vents Français emerged.

If Farrenc’s Sextet is on a Mozartian model, Thuille’s more than nods towards Johannes Brahms. From the opening horn call of the first movement, its Brahmsian qualities were obvious, with a dainty gavotte à la Hungarian Dance and a sunny finale reminiscent of the Serenades. If Brahms had been the composer though, he’d have closed the first movement with the beguiling, melancholic theme rather than tacking on the chirpy sign-off that Thuille threw in. In this movement, Thuille composed long solo phrases that twist in curlicues before being passed to the next player. Here we could appreciate each wind player’s qualities; flautist Emmanuel Pahud’s diamond-bright, yet slightly breathy tone quality and François Leleux’s creamy, but powerful oboe sound, both familiar from their solo careers. They were also, musically, the more dominant members of the group in the first half of the programme, shaping lines and directing tempi. Paul Meyer’s lean, silky tone is very different to the thick, plummy Germanic sound of his more famous namesake, Sabine; here, his playing was strangely reserved, as was Gilbert Audin’s bassoon playing. The horn takes a starring role in Thuille’s Larghetto, with Croatian Radovan Vlatković’s mellow sound warmly applied to its autumnal line. What was especially likeable about Thuille’s Sextet is the way he writes for the winds in duo and trio combinations, to explore different textures.

The second half of the programme was purely Gallic, often pungently so. André Caplet’s Quintet for piano and winds (the French horn got to sit this one out) is an affable piece, if not especially memorable. Meyer was more demonstrative in this half of the programme and he made the most of the elegiac Adagio which contains a long, keening clarinet solo.

Ibert’s Trois pièces brèves and Poulenc’s Sextet for wind quintet and piano are far finer works, full of French humour and sparkle – and Les Vents didn’t disappoint in their interpretations. The Ibert was performed standing up. “Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon,” was Winnie-the-Pooh’s unusually sage advice on choosing a birthday present for Eeyore. Well, I’d argue that even the gloomiest of us would fail to be cheered by Ibert’s witty composition. Les Vents made it dance, bending the jazzy inflections in the third movement with a wicked glint in the eye.

A critic wryly referred to Francis Poulenc as ‘half-monk, half-rascal” and these contrasting qualities abound in his Sextet. Often riotous, the success of this work is the way Poulenc treats each instrument as an individual, tailoring his writing to suit each characteristic. It was here that Audin’s bassoon playing shone, his soliloquy in the opening movement superbly dramatic, and with a quasi-religious chant (the monk?) interrupting the Prestissimo finale. Poulenc tosses in some fruity chalumeau clarinet, squealing horn and spectral flutter-tongued flute lines, all joyously dispatched. As if that didn’t end a generous programme on enough of a high, Les Vents offered Albert Roussel’s brief Divertissement as a delicious petit four.