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London Winds - Mozart Gran Partita etc

Michael Collins further entrenches his place among the first rank of clarinettists with this rather heavenly recording of Mozart Serenades. He leads the London Winds with great sensitivity and, when called for, virtuosic flair. A class act.  A classy disc.
The Gran Partita is indeed " a grand piece of a very special kind", as a Viennese newspaper of 1784 reported. And it almost always seems to bring out the best in wind ensembles. Led with flair and imagination by Michael Collins, London Winds gives a vital, refined perforamnce, exceptionally transparent in texture and full of felicitious detail: the wonderfully veiled pianissimo coda of the Romanze fifth movement, for instance; or the eloquently phrased oboe cantilena against the dulcet murmurings of clarinets and basset horns in the adagio variation.
Outer movements are crisp and athletic, with an easy, quick-witted sense of instrumental interplay; and the two minuets are sharply contrasted, the first done as a stately menuetto galante, its G minor Trio more elegiac than agitated, the second as a perky Laendler. Some may raise an eyebrow at the use of contrabassoon instead of Mozart's prescribed double-bass (contrabassoons had notoriously unreliable plumbing in the 1780s). But there are gains in overall blend, even if I missed the double bass's pizzicato twangs in the second minuet's beery Trio. My only reservation comes with the Adagio third movement , the work's emotional core, where the pulsing accompaniment impinges too prominently on the soaring exchanges of oboe, clarinet and basset horn. 
As a fill-up London Winds offer that most undiverting of Serenades, K388, in a fine performance, amply powerful and urgent but notable for its poetry and inwardness, whether in the sorrowful, syncopated variant of the "second subject" in the opening Allegro's recapitulation (7'02"), or the Trio's exquisite "mirror canon", celestially floated here by oboes and bassoons. 
This is a desirable pairing of Mozart's greatest works for wind ensemble, balancing refinement and earthy enjoyment in the so-called "Gran Partita" and catching all the sombre passion and pathos of that most troubled of serenades, K388.

Textures are unusually transparent, revealing felicities of scoring that often go for little. In the "Gran Partita", the allegros are spruce and vital, full of witty instrumental interplay, while the two minuets are sharply contrasted, the first done as a stately menuetto galante, the second as a brisk, breezy Ländler.

In the sublime adagio, the syncopated accompaniment is slightly too palpable where it should float weightlessly. But these beautifully played, thoughtfully characterised performances can be recommended to anyone who fancies this particular coupling.

INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY - Nov 2006 - Anna Picard *****

London Winds' divine recording of the "Gran Partita" and "Nacht Musique" Serenades should disarm any listener who is normally suspicious of musical balm. So sweet and direct is their tone, so wittily detailed their dialogue, so neat their  tempi, so rich the sonority that results from exchanging the normal double-bass for a contrabassoon, that resistance is futile. Though the first Adagio of the "Gran Partita" is the jewel in this disc -as remarkable for the soft rosy mattress of basset horns as it is for the aching legato lines of clarinet and oboe - the piquancy of the C Minor Serenade is equally seductive. A superlative performance, beautifully recorded.


**** K361, *****K388 (performance)

..." a highly accomplished performance, with the music's grandeur evident from the very opening bars of the slow introduction. The C Minor Serenade for Wind Octet K388 [is] a superb performance, by turns austere and warm, that is surely the equal of any recording of this dark work."


"London Winds' recording of Mozart's ``Gran Partita'' (Onyx), with contrabassoon in place of the customary double-bass, is exceptionally elegant"

MUSIC OMH.COM  - Dominic McHugh  2/10/2006

  Amidst the glut of Mozart albums in this anniversary year, the London Winds and Michael Collins' new CD of Mozart Serenades is a refreshing delight.

In every way, this recording of the great 'Gran Partita' for 13 wind instruments, K 361, and the 'Nacht Musique' Serenade, K 388, becomes the top recommendation, knocking away all competition with its vivacity, attention to detail and above all, its tremendous atmosphere.
Collins has had a great year, excelling in the classical repertoire as never before; his performance of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in January with the London Mozart Players remains one of the two or three best anniversary tributes to the composer I've heard so far.
Far from being mere background music composed for court occasions, this so-called 'Harmonie-Musik' (music for wind ensemble) frequently shows Mozart at his most imaginative. The potential for deploying the distinctive timbres of the oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and so on, in new ways, was rigorously explored by the composer in both of these pieces. The London Winds use a contrabassoon rather than a double bass in their performances of the 'Gran Partita', because although Mozart indicates a string bass line, the development of the contrabassoon soon afterwards meant that it replaced the double bass in the first printed edition of the work. This means that no string sound is heard; instead, the winds get to shine on their own, and the effect is wonderful.
Though both pieces on the disc are masterly, and played with finesse, the highlight has to be the 'Gran Partita'. Its seven movements cover the full strata of emotions, from joy to pain, and the formal variety is fascinating: for instance, there are two slow movements, two Minuets and a ten-minute Theme and Variations. The most familiar of these to most people will be the Adagio, which is used in the film of Amadeus when Salieri states that 'It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God'. In the London Winds' performance, one can really understand the sentiment: clarinet, oboe and bassoon excel in weaving together the complex lines of the music, and Collins keeps the tempo moving along nicely, unlike some quite turgid performances in the catalogue.
The opening Largo-Molto allegro is beautifully serene, with the clarinets excelling in the introduction, and both Minuets bounce along with a jolly character. The height of the work is the Romance, which is played with warmth and sunshine, but also poignancy. And the working out of the six variations in the penultimate movement is vividly portrayed in this architecturally-aware performance.
The Serenade in C minor, K 388, is the complete antithesis in character to this. Tortured, dark and dramatic, its touching melodies linger in the ear. The opening Allegro can certainly never have been intended to be 'background music' – its emotional journey is too arresting, especially here, under the direction of Collins. The Andante, meanwhile, represents the calm before the storm of the Minuet, whose canonic entries create a tortured, piercing texture. And the Allegro finishes the piece off with another dark, harmonically unstable movement, again performed to perfection.
This addition to the catalogue cannot be too highly recommended. Not to be missed.