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Limelight Young Critics Competition

Features - Classical Music

Limelight Young Critics Competition

by Melissa Lesnie on October 6, 2011 (October 6, 2011) filed under Classical Music | Comment Now
Cast your vote for the best classical album review from these budding music writers at the Sydney Con.

Limelight editor Francis Merson recently gave a lecture at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music for students interested in developing their skills in music criticism. He assigned them a CD to review: Quintopia, the sparkling second album from the New Sydney Wind Quintet, whose five members all teach at the Con.

We've made the submissions available to read online in the pages that follow, and we're inviting Limelight readers to vote for the best of the 14 reviews (published anonymously). We'll reveal the People's Choice review on Friday, October 28, and the winning student will receive a year's subscription to Limelight!

Read the reviews and cast your vote here. Listen to a track from Quintopia by clicking the "play" button below.

Grainger Lisbon
from the album Quintopia
New Sydney Wind Quintet 

Review 1

★★★★

The New Sydney Wind Quintet's latest release Quintopia is aptly titled, given the group's uncanny ability to evoke other locales. Their renditions of works by Ravel, Nielsen, Grainger, and Australian composer Lyle Chan, all played with clarity and verve, bring forth the composers' inspirations and sources, with a lively energy that grabs the listener's attention. 

On their previous album, the NSWQ established a precedent of playing Australian and French repertoire that is maintained with this disc's first three works. Their recording of Ravel's Ma Mère L'Oye, a classic piano duet, contains a wealth of timbral interest, no doubt originating in its thoughtful arrangement. Works by Percy Grainger and Lyle Chan use folksongs as their sources and provide a counterpoint to the other works programmed. The "odd man out" of the set is Nielsen's Wind Quintet, itself a classic of the repertoire, which is here played with enough energy and cohesion to warrant interest.

The works chosen work well together, with an abundance of major-key works, but contrast is a little lacking.

As a work by Sydney-based musicians of high pedigree, the recording's preservation of an almost-live atmosphere is much appreciated, and the sound quality is rich.

Quintopia is an enjoyable release, and what it lacks in contrast it recovers in the strength of the playing within.

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Review 2

★★★★

Can the magic of fairy tales and folk songs be expressed by only a small group of wind instruments and succeed to reach our approving ears? New Sydney Wind Quintet thinks so; their new album Utopia being anything but small in scope. The talent of five Australian professionals has discovered a method of providing a wonderful variety of repertoire, shaped to revive works by Ravel, Grainger, Lyle Chan and Nielsen. It may have been the luscious surroundings of Armidale that inspired the choice of repertoire, when NSWQ offered their teaching services and performances for a year at the New England Conservatorium of Music In 2010. NSWQ now teach at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and perform with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

The brilliance of varied timbres and technique represent Ravel’s art of inviting the listener to escape into the mystical children’s stories of the French suite Ma Mère l’Oye, a set of five pieces of music composed for individual fables. A different mood is expressed for each piece with the use of articulation and precise technique. But it doesn’t stop here. The plunge is taken to attempt songs by Grainger, in particular the world-famous Danny Boy. The Quintet meets the requirements of skills for clarity and dynamics, resulting in one’s emotions to be satisfied.

Saved by the quirkiness of Chan’s Passage, a fresh change of sound is impressive. Quintet Op 43 by Nielsen finishes strong and successful with each instrument representing its own sound of a high standard. This album is highly recommended.

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Review 3

★★★

New Sydney Wind Quintet entices the inner child in us all to come out to play in Quintopia, the follow-up to their debut CD. The wind quintet's instrumentation lends itself beautifully to capturing the youthful innocence in the repertoire.

Quintopia brings to life the tales of Ravel's Ma Mère L'Oye with shifting tone colours that weave in and out of the texture. The well-employed phrasing of the ambiguously metred second movement of the Ravel successfully depicts the weariness of Thom Thumb wandering through the forest.

Percy Grainger's tunes leave me with mixed feelings. The Irish Tune from County Derry is expressed with pleasing restraint. The delicate pauses between each phrase maintain an elastic energy that bounds forward and then pulls back with the utmost sensitivity.  However, it is the restraint in Lisbon that I believe is its downfall. A greater dynamic range is necessary to maintain the forward momentum that is lacking in this rendition.

Lyle Chan's Passage, composed in 2010, stands out as the discordant piece in this repertoire.  The jazz-inspired, syncopated melodic motifs and the alarming overblown notes from the muted brass bear no relation to the serene atmosphere created by the other smooth, tranquil works.  However, the positioning of the track midway through the album does provide an uplifting counterpoint that commands attention for the second half.

Nielson's Wind Quintet, one of the 20th century's major works in the genre, is delivered with just the right amount of dramatic expression in the third and fourth movements to balance the light and flippant tone of the first and second. The group creates beautiful sonorities by blending timbres, demonstrating their sophistication in timbral matching in the final Tema con variazioni, where the bassoon weaves in and out of the melody of the french horn with incredible control and sensitivity.

This CD firmly ingrains New Sydney Wind Quintet as Australia's leading wind quintet.

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Review 4

★★★★

Who would have thought Thomas More would have included a wind quintet as part of his novel? This CD is certainly an ideal recording; the front cover sums up quite well this performance in a physical sense. Attention to detail is most striking; the swirling of the counterpoint and dialogue between instruments of common timbral quality (the Menuet from Nielsen’s Quintet Op 43 comes to mind) creates what mere mortals term “perfection”.

The disc opens with an arrangement of Ravel’s Ma Mère L’Oye that truly reflects the original’s childlike verses of fairy-tales, common in France around Ravel’s time. Floating clarinet and flute parts put one in a reflective daze, especially the second movement, Petit Poucet.

Percy Grainger, not the only Australian composer on the disc, researched folk-song from the British Isles and Australia, among other areas. Here, his Walking Tune certainly grabs the feel of a walk in the Scottish Highlands, but what differs about Lisbon is that it is an original piece for wind quintet. The other Australian, Lyle Chan, is still able to blend well with the other works.Calcium Light Night certainly evokes its true meaning!

Finally, the Nielsen quintet. Being almost a neo-classical attempt at composition; yet played with such delicacy that would have won sympathisers in the 18th century. The finale, markedTema con variazione in its chorale-like setting has such balance in this ensemble. Bassoon and horn are a good combination in this setting due to similar timbral qualities in certain registers.

Let’s hope the next time a Utopia is written, a woodwind quintet is included in the novel. This is such a good listen, and I recommend it highly.

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Review 5

★★

The most recent recording by the New Sydney Wind Quintet left much to be desired to the ear of the contemporary classical music listener. Formed in 2004 by some of Australia’s foremost wind players, the quintet performs regularly throughout Australia and Asia. The New Sydney Wind Quintet (who are in real need of a new name) is recognised as the country’s premier wind quintet, and quite frankly from listening to Quintopia this is surprising.

That is not to say that the players themselves didn’t perform up to standard – there were varying tone colours, no tuning or intonation crises and the interpretations and ensemble playing were very cohesive. However, the choice of music lacked inspiration.

There didn’t appear to be any unifying theme between the pieces selected, in spite of them trying to convince us with their “f” alliteration – “folksongs, fairy tales or friends”. Chan’s arrangement of Grainger’s Danny Boy was, by far, the worst choice – cheesy and banal. It didn’t allow the listener to sit back and relax. Instead, the flute counter-melody continually over-rode the gorgeous horn solo.

Chan’s original compositions, Calcium Night Light and Passage, premiered in concert in New England, NSW in June 2010, were the more interesting pieces on the program, but even still they needed more direction and innovation.

The playing on Quintopia just didn’t have the energy that some other ensembles achieve. A more imaginative program is highly recommended for the New Sydney Wind Quintet’s next CD. Here’s to hoping that this recording doesn’t taint the reputation of these usually fabulous musicians.

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Review 6

★★★★

Utopia: An imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect (Oxford Dictionary). The New Sydney Wind Quintet’s most recent album Quintopia lives up to the above definition of "Utopia". Their newest release is a 14-track collection of works arranged for wind quintet. These recordings include arrangements of Ravel, Percy Grainger, Lyle Chan and Carl Nielsen.

The Members of the quintet are all teachers at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and are also involved with the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras. 

The First of the works are the five movements of Ravel’s Ma Mère l'Oye, which have been beautifully arranged by Linckelmann. The quintet maintains superb intonation and balance throughout. There is great interpretation of the score, creating a very boisterous mood in which the children Ravel composed for might have originally preformed.

The following three works are arrangements by the renowned Australian composer Percy Grainger. The quintet still maintain their high level of musicianship throughout these pieces. I was particularly moved by the luscious tone throughout the range of the french horn in Irish Tune From Country Derry.

The remaining pieces are all at the same high standard. I was a little uncomfortable with the intonation in some parts of Calcium Light Night but was rescued by the beautiful french horn melody following.

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Review 7

★★★★

The fine instrumentalists of the New Sydney Wind Quintet (formed 2004) have created something special with their second album Quintopia. It’s a happily fantastical sound world of which Sir Thomas More’s rich imagination would surely approve.

In Maurice Ravel’s Ma Mére l’Oye (Mother Goose), arranged by Joachim Linckelmann for wind quintet, each movement conjures a different fairytale character, matched intelligently by NSWQ’s lovely array of timbres and textures. Horn player Andrew Bain creates real resonance, shifting effortlessly between smoothly lyrical and brassy beast-like passages.

NSWQ also aims to promote the performance of Australian music, so Lyle Chan invites you to partake of his own quintopian vision by arranging for wind quintet some of Percy Grainger’s most illustrious traditional songs. Flautist Bridget Bolliger’s stunning phrasing soars above the quintet’s harmonic ground, most notably in Irish Tune from County Derry. In Chan’s own quirky composition Passage, Andrew Barnes’s bassoon guides the ensemble through a comical, almost cartoonish dream. In contrast, the soothing sounds of Calcium Light Night offer a gentle catharsis, with oboist Alexander Oguey giving an inspiring performance – heartfelt nostalgia within an altered folk tune.

Carl Nielsen’s Kvintet – something of a standard for such ensembles – makes a fitting finale to Quintopia. On this musical journey in which each instrument is endowed with a different humanoid personality, Frank Celata’s virtuosic clarinet creates wonderful flow and character, with real panache!

New Sydney Wind Quintet have captured in these performances an idyllic world of folksongs, fairy tales and curious personalities. Quintopia indeed.

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Review 8

★★★★

The New Sydney Wind Quintet play with “the accuracy and technical facility with the ease of waiting for a bus”, which makes listening to their latest album Quintopia like sinking into a hot bubble bath.

With a light-handed approach to vibrato and dynamics, NSWQ play with clarity of sound that is modern and refreshing.

Quintopia is the perfect title for the group’s latest release. From the moment of hitting the play button, escapism is the first word that springs to mind as the opening chord of Ravel’s Ma Mère L’Oye transports you into another world. Based on "folk tunes, fairy tales and friendship", the entire album is filled with sweet and poignant pieces that demonstrate the timbres and individuality of each instrument as well as the symbiosis between the players.

The NSWQ have long been advocates of Australian wind quintet music and this album is no exception. Quintopia features several works by Grainger, including a brilliant arrangement of Irish Tune from County Derry, played with a rich sound that rivals its concert band counterpart. It also features two works by composer Lyle Chan, excerpts from his Harp and Wind Quintet.

Quintopia closes with the Nielsen Quintet Op 43, a perfect finish for this storybook album, leaving one wanting to hit the repeat button, pour a glass of bubbly and add more hot water to the bath.

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Review 9

★★★★

The New Sydney Wind Quintet demonstrates with aplomb the delightful and expressive qualities of an under-appreciated genre. In a collection of short pieces the members of this Sydney-based quintet effortlessly combine the technical and timbral qualities of five distinct wind instruments to create captivating performances. 

I’ll be the first to admit the idea of an ensemble made up of flute, horn, clarinet, oboe and bassoon did not fill me with confidence. Unlike string quintets, where each instrument is able to meld together with ease, a group of wind instruments have completely different tones and techniques creating what I so wrongly assumed would be a disconnected ensemble. Listening to NSWQ’s Quintopia shattered these misconceptions.

Maurice Ravel’s suite of fairytale inspired pieces, Ma mère l’oye was originally composed for piano duet and later masterfully arranged for orchestra. This wind quintet arrangement is based on Ravel’s orchestrations and NSWQ’s performance retains all sense of the elegant simplicity and colourful phrasing. Each instrument shines in its own right, evoking enchanting characters in individual sections and combining to transport the listener to fascinating places.

The individual members of the ensemble are highlighted even more so in the longest piece on the album, Carl Nielsen’s Wind Quintet. This interesting 20th-century work accentuates the technical ability possessed by the group, which is somewhat lost in the charm and simplicity of music by Grainger and Calcium Light Night by Lyle Chan. The other new Australian work by Chan, Passage, is welcomingly playful and jazzy.

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Review 10

★★★

Five internationally acclaimed Australian wind players are responsible for Quintopia – a release by the New Sydney Wind Quintet, a group which the five formed in 2004, now recognised as the country’s leading wind quintet.

Quintopia depicts character - the timbres of the wind quintet are especially suited to this, with the aid of the works by Ravel, Grainger, Chan, and Nielsen. The CD follows a good logical flow; the Ravel sets a simplistic mood with Ma Mère l’Oye, played without any unnecessary complexity - it was composed after settings of children’s fairy tales, after all. This simplistic playing style continues through a tuneful yet transitional Grainger, a point deserving special praise being the perfectly timed phrases in Irish Tune from County Derry.

We continue in a light-hearted mood with two works by Lyle Chan, another Australian composer. After his energetic Passage, we eventually work our way to Carl Nielsen’s Quintet Op 43, which works especially well with the NSWQ. The Nielsen was worth the wait – it shows us the full complement of colors which the quintet is well capable of providing, but seemed to have forgotten throughout the first half of the album. Being a celebrated work for wind quintet, Nielsen’s composition is a set of musical portraits inspired by the personalities of his friends. Here the individual members of the NSWQ finally distinguish themselves and their instruments. Enthusiasm is truly present here after being somewhat missed, particularly in the Grainger.

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Review 11

★★★★

Instead of “not doing anything at all”, and pondering about how “everybody makes mistakes, everybody has those days”, why not “get down on Friday” with the New Sydney Wind Quintet. Formed in 2004 by five Australian wind players, the group is regarded as this country’s leading wind quintet. Aside from appearing in broadcasts, they have also held major positions in European and American symphonies, developing an impressive and recognised reputation over their seven years together.

Their second album Quintopia features a mixture of pieces from Ravel and Percy Grainger, Lyle Chan and Carl Nielsen... No remixes and duets with artists such as Rebecca Black or Lady Gaga. This compilation fuels imagination, feeling and relaxation, evoking moods of peace and calmness. Beginning with mellow oboe and flute solos stretching along the first few tracks, we are transported to a place free from anxiety, letting the mind wander with no sense of time, as if striding along a lake or falling asleep on the grass in a field.

We then turn to Grainger’s folk tunes, bringing out a reminiscence of the Scottish Highlands. A hint of energetic and light jazz is recognised in the performance of Chan’s works, which seem to be composed as homage to Carl Stalling, the composer of Looney Toons, further adding to the humorous intention. A sonata and theme and variations conclude the CD on a positive-sounding harmonic progression. Like tasting wine, the sounds of Quintopia become more enticing the further one pursues its tracks.

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Review 12

★★★★

The New Sydney Wind Quartet’s Quintopia brings music alive with its individual and dynamic boldness. The CD captures and portrays an atmosphere of serenity through its exceptional tone and contrast of pieces. There is a quality of uniqueness that gives audiences that sense of enthusiasm.

Ma Mère l’Oye composed by Ravel was written originally for piano and later for orchestra, but Quintopia has created something new and diverse in this arrangement for wind quartet. This different contrast and tone colour creates a whole new level of sound and portrays a different atmosphere altogether. Ravel is known for his dreamlike quality and being able to create vivid imagery through music. Quintopia captures Ravel's sense of style through the group's mellow use of tone and picturesque harmonies where a serene mood is instantly created.

The Australian Percy Grainger experimented and tried to create something new through his music. Quintopia’s portrayal of his compositions reflects his never dull and experimental relationship to music. An authentic atmosphere of his time in England is created and a sense of land and nature is captured through the folk tune melodies.

Not only does Quintopia contain lyrical music but it also contains hints of a more quirky and wild nature. There is a boisterous mood and animated ambience created by this wind quintet. They explore different types of music ranging from Ravel to a more contemporary composer like Lyle Chan. Here, the NSWQ show their wide range in repertoire and give the listeners a wide and eclectic choice of tracks.

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Review 13

★★★

The New Sydney Wind Quintet is formed by Australia’s finest musicians, so it came as shock that their second album is less than thrilling. The group clearly knows how to make modern music shine, and while the pieces don’t alienate, as a block they aren’t easily accessible even to musical aficionados. Sadly, technical perfection across the board doesn’t seem to be enough to bring the set of pieces to life.

We’re treated to some bite-sized tastes of the quintet's capabilities, culminating in the more substantial Nielson, a remarkably thoughtful approach to a wind standard. After the gentle and perhaps less-than-stirring Ravel, the almost unimaginably metronomic approach to Grainger should be a moment of escape to the familiar. The Irish Tune from County Derry was particularly surprising, with an arrangement that left a piercing melody and ignored the luscious lines below.

The remaining half of the album is exquisitely handled, and the ability of the ensemble to tackle contemporary Australian music is nothing short of astonishing. However, without hearing a comfortable piece to ground the program, the best accomplishments are wasted on tired ears.  Taken alone, the Nielsen bursts with moments of the sublime, refreshing clarity amidst a meandering piece.  By the end of the CD, though, it feels like we’ve been treated to much of the same. With such a thorough study in light, fluffy music, there is a deep anticipation for what would become of a meatier work in the hands of this Quintet.

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Review 14

★★★

Quintopia in all its euphoric greatness has been reached! Too bad it’s not all it was cracked up to be. New Sydney Wind Quintet (NSWQ) is made up of five highly talented Australian musicians: Bridget Bolliger (flute), Alexander Oguey (oboe), Frank Celeta (clarinet), Andrew Barnes (bassoon) and Andrew Bain (french horn). In 2009 NSWQ made their spectacular recording debut with the world premiere of Ross Edwards' Incantations. NSWQ’s new album, Quintopia, is equally as accomplished, but the repertoire choices are questionable. 

Quintopia opens with Ravel's Ma Mère L'Oye arranged by Linckelmann. Unfortunately, the poor voicing of this arrangement turns the NSWQ’s beautiful sound into a foggy mass of polluted air. The pain, however, is short-lived as we are offered a breath of fresh air in the form of Grainger’s Irish Tune From County Derry. NSWQ offers this to the listener in sweet melodious lines, phrased with the utmost finesse. Lyle Chan then offers up some light jazz with Passage. This, for me, was the highlight of Quintopia. Passage offered some light relief from this otherwise sombre album. Quintopia finishes with nice, symmetrical harmonies in the form of Carl Nielsen’s Quintet.

Throughout this album the NSWQ makes a lovely, sonorous sound, creating an accomplished and well presented performance.

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