For the second BBC Chamber Prom, we were back in perhaps more conventional “chamber” territory, following The Cardinall’s Musick’s opening choral programme last week. Pianist Christian Blackshaw joined the Royal Northern Sinfonia Winds for a performance of Mozart’s Quintet for piano and winds, but before that, the wind players performed a mainstay of the wind-quintet repertoire, Nielsen’s Wind Quintet.

Written in 1921-1922, on the back of his Fifth Symphony, Nielsen was inspired to write the work on hearing members of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet rehearsing Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for winds. In writing the quintet, he aimed to reflect not only the characters of the five instruments, but also the personalities of the players of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. He also committed to writing concerti for each of the players, but only completed two, for flute and for clarinet, before his death in 1931. (The Clarinet Concerto was performed to great acclaim by Mark Simpson earlier in this year’s Proms, and Emily Beynon will perform the Flute Concerto later in the season).

Nielsen begins quite conventionally with a sonata-form first movement, which nevertheless gives the five instruments opportunities to demonstrate their characters. The bassoon kicks off with the first statement of the theme, presented here with poise, almost tongue-in-cheek, by Stephen Reay. This set the tone for the movement as a whole, with the players playing stylishly yet somewhat seriously. Nielsen passes the material around, using fragments of the themes canonically, yet despite appearing quite straightforward on the surface, there is individual character to be expressed, and even humour in the chirpy ornamented lines, particularly for flue and oboe. This was a subtle performance, and in the dry, slightly sober atmosphere of the Cadogan Hall, we could have done with a little more extroversion at times.

In the second movement, the humour in the music is even more evident. The horn largely gets a rest here, with the other four players taking the themes, often in duet combinations. The minor key trio begins in canon, and the use of counterpoint creates a strong contrast to the simplicity of the minuet. Again, the performance here was stylish and sophisticated, but the mood had not really changed from the opening movement. It was only in the finale where the players really took on board the individuality in Nielsen’s writing, with stronger characterisation, taking advantage of the more virtuosic opportunities presented to them. The flute and cor anglais (a quick change required of oboist Steven Hudson here) played beautifully smooth lines in the prelude that opens the movement, and there was a wonderfully warm blend for the chorale tune. The eleven variations that follow were brought to life with a new energy not seen in the earlier movements. Notable moments included the almost jazzy clarinet fifth variation, played with commanding presence by Timothy Orpen, and the bassoon’s solo seventh variation, with more poised control from Reay. Juliette Bausor (flute) showed real sensitivity and a softness of tone in the sarabande-like sixth variation, and the horn (Peter Francomb) lightened the mood in the ninth. In keeping with the elegant and understated performance, Reay made little show of producing the tube extension required for the bassoon to reach the final bottom A.

Then Christian Blackshaw joined the wind players (minus the flute) for the Mozart. As Petroc Trelawny reminded us in his introduction, Mozart wrote to his father of this piece, “I myself consider it to be the best thing I have written in my life”, and it certainly signalled a departure in his use of wind instruments, particularly in the piano concerti that followed this. As in the quintet, he began to use the wind instruments in a much more integrated way, allowing them much more of the meat of thematic material, often in conversation with the piano. In the first movement Allegro moderato, Blackshaw and the wind players immediately embraced this conversational style. The piano mostly introduces the themes, and then accompanies the wind players as they vary the material in response. In the introduction Blackshaw and his colleagues seemed laid back and mellow, and the main section was definitely more moderato than allegro. There were a couple of minor lapses of precise articulation, but the close communication between the players was evident throughout. The second movement is typically lyrical and sublime, and Hudson on oboe showed great control with some very delicate pianissimo playing. This was contrasted beautifully with warmth from Orpen on the clarinet as the music shifts briefly into the minor, and all the players enjoyed the sinking, darker harmonies of this movement. Blackshaw took us attacca into the finale, a joyful sonata-rondo, with a cadenza-like passage for all the instruments before its unexpectedly understated close. This was sophisticated Mozart playing at its best, no fireworks, just beautiful music being allowed to breathe.