“Like a good red wine”

30 years of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet

Like the string quartet, the wind quintet is one of the supreme disciplines of chamber music. “As an orchestral musician, we feel it is a real benefit to play in the wind quintet – because we have learned to listen to each other in a completely different way,” says Walter Seyfarth, clarinetist with the Berliner Philharmoniker. He knows what he’s talking about. For 30 years, he has been a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, an ensemble which was founded on his initiative: in 1988, Walter Seyfarth was invited to perform in a quintet at Café Einstein. He was able to interest his orchestral colleagues flautist Michael Hasel, oboist Andreas Wittmann, horn player Fergus McWilliam and bassoonist Henning Trog in the event. The concert was a great success, and it encouraged the musicians to continue to work together in this line-up. Today, the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet is represented by several major concert agencies, coordinating performances and tours around the world: the musicians often give 20 to 25 concerts per year in addition to their regular orchestral commitments. Only once has the line-up changed: bassoonist Marion Reinhard took over after Henning Trog retired.

In search of the perfect blend of sound

Unlike the string quartet, the instrumentation of four different woodwinds and a brass instrument is very heterogeneous. Therein lies the challenge, but also the charm. There is the high flute that soars over everything, the equally high, nasal oboe, the sonorous clarinet, the lower horn from the brass section, and the bassoon as the bass instrument. “We flautists like to play the prima donna because we play the top line. With this colour, you could wipe out the rest of the ensemble. As a flautist, I think it’s quite important to make sure that the sound stays integrated and merges well with the oboe and clarinet.” Adapting to each other, listening to each other – this is also the top priority for Walter Seyfarth: “I constantly pay attention to the articulation of the oboe and the flute, which can play a much shorter staccato. This is very difficult for the clarinet with its much larger range of resonance. In addition, I have to constantly mix with the horn and bassoon. It must never happen that it stands out from the tonal colouring. The clarinet has something of a mediating function.” Walter Seyfarth points out that no member of the quintet holds a principal position in the orchestra. “We are all used to adapting to the section leader. The art of restraint benefits the ensemble feel of the quintet.” According to Andreas Wittman, refining the sound balance is an important, but not the only aspect of playing together: “Over the 30 years, we have tried to go beyond what is normally expected of a wind quintet. It was important to us to find more tonal colours and create mixed timbres. The audience should have the impression that a larger ensemble is playing.”

Unusual programming

In contrast to the string quartet, the repertoire of the wind ensemble is not expansive, especially since the musicians agreed from the very start to play only original works, no arrangements. “That limits the repertoire selection a lot,” grins Michael Hasel. “We play the same pieces often. But we know them better and more in-depth. We have really internalised the repertoire.” The repertoire ranges from the First Viennese School with works by Anton Reicha and Franz Danzi, and extends all the way to compositions of the 20th century when the wind quintet experienced a renaissance. Over the years, pieces were also added that were written especially for the ensemble, for example Xenion by Volker David Kirchner, the Suite brasileira by Julio Medaglia and the Second Wind Quintet by Kalevi Aho which, in addition to the “classic instruments”, also includes a piccolo and alto flute plus a cor anglais. For the musicians, these works are often physically very challenging. “Sometimes we feel like marathon runners. We are constantly challenged in the quintet, not just as ensemble players, but as soloists,” explains Andreas Wittmann.

Audiences enjoy this special programming: the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet has built up an international fan base over the years, not only in Europe, but also in Asia and especially in America, where wind music is very popular. In February 2019, the musicians embark on their 18th American tour – which will be for the last time. Because the signs are the ensemble is winding down – Marion Reinhard moved to La Scala a few years ago and Fergus McWilliam and Walter Seyfarth intend to retire soon. The five wind players are very grateful for their time together that allowed them to grow together, both personally and artistically. Also significant for the growth of the ensemble were the more than 20 CD recordings that were made over the years. “The wonderful thing after all these decades is that there is not the need to discuss things so much. We are attuned to each other and know each other’s reactions,” says Walter Seyfarth happily. The others nod in agreement: “It’s like a good red wine: it gets better over the years.”

This text is the abridged version of an article by Nicole Restle for the magazine 128 (volume 04/2018). Copies of the issue are available in our online shop and in the Philharmonie shop

Shortly after the ensemble was founded
(Photo: private)
Ten years later ...
(Photo: Archive Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet )
At the “Festival of Lights” in New York in 2007
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
A good-humoured ensemble
(Photo: Archive Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet)
The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet today
(Photo: Peter Adamik)