Playing the numbers game

Families with twins are a novelty; triplets a curiosity; quadruplets a rarity; higher multiples a scarcity.

Comparisons with musical works draw a certain parallel: take the twin instruments that usually provide the melodic interest in a baroque trio sonata (a slight misnomer there) or a pair of humans performing a piano duet (one of the safer activities a couple of people in proximity can indulge in nowadays).

If you’re a teacher, however, you’ll recall having to explain why a piano trio doesn’t comprise three pianos, but a violin, cello and piano. Semantics experts to the rescue, please.

guinnessThe Guinness Book of Records houses examples of the largest number of instruments in a single performance – 315 different instruments gathered for a symphonic message of peace in India earlier this year, for example; and 500 dizi players assembled by the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra in 2005.

On the more serious side of the coin, however, classical composers occasionally capitalise on the potential of groups of similar instruments. Let’s refresh the memory about a selection of them.

Robert Schumann‘s Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra was considered unplayable at the time of its premiere in horns-yt1850, with its challenging high notes hitting the stratosphere. Its difficulties for the soloists remain, but you can hear a wonderful performance given by the American Horn Quartet (Naxos 8.557747) on a disc that also sports Telemann‘s fanciful Overture in F major, written more than a century earlier, in which the quartet of horns’ pastoral images are infected with quirky, naturalistic references to the resident frogs and crows.

And so from quadruplets to quintuplets, that can be found in a set of works by a contemporary of Telemann, Joseph Bodin de Boismortier (Naxos 8.553639), a Frenchman whose musical talents were initially obscured by his role as a tax collector for the Royal Tobacco Excise Office. His more than 100 compositions include works for most instruments, but the flute figures more than any other. Boismortier exploited its possibilities in various configurations, including his set of Six Concertos for Five Flutes on the cited disc.

8.573167For sextuplets we can turn to one of this month’s new Naxos releases (Naxos 8.573167) of music by Benjamin Dale (1885-1943), the inspiration for which came from his friend Lionel Tertis, the father of modern viola playing. Dale’s Introduction and Andante for Six Violas, written in 1911, was described by his teacher, Frederick Corder, as “a work of remarkable beauty, power and originality.”

Additionally, the disc’s sleeve notes inform us that “Dale promoted a number of techniques that were not often used in English chamber music at the time, such as pizzicato, tremolos, ponticello and harmonics in all six parts, also instructing the sixth violaʼs C string to be tuned down to a G in order to reach the bass A flat in the last bar, considerably extending the maximum range that is normally possible on the viola.”

piano-circus-creditSix pianos might sound an unlikely ensemble, but that’s exactly what Piano Circus is, a group of six pianists and six pianos, originally founded in 1989 to perform Steve Reich‘s minimalist Six Pianos and still going strong, having since raised a family of more than a hundred works written especially for the medium.

helicopter-string-quartetStill in the twentieth century, Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Gruppen was written for three orchestras, spatially divided into a horseshoe formation, a masterpiece in its technical construction (the complexities in rhythm and tempo are formidable) and ground-breaking imagination. Equally mind-blowing was the concept behind his Helicopter String Quartet, in which Stockhausen imagines himself floating above the four choppers, each of which is carrying a member of a string quartet. The premiere was given in 1995 by the Arditti Quartet and helicopters from the Dutch Air Force as part of the Holland Festival.

Let’s end with equally improbable multiples of force, but with tongue firmly in cheek. Malcolm Arnold was a friend of the German-born cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung, who fled to Britain in the turmoil of the Second World War; Arnold wrote his Grand Grand Festival Overture as part of a zany Hoffnung Festival in 1956. The aim was to transport Hoffnung’s unique sense of visual humour into the normally stuffy atmosphere of classical music.

Arnold had a witty streak equal to the task: the overture’s catalogue entry describes it as “for 3 vacuum cleaners, 1 floor polisher, 4 rifles and orchestra.” Given its BBC Proms premiere in 2009, the recording reminds us that it’s a tragicomedy, since the role of the rifles is to permanently silence the incessant whining of the vacuums. Well-worth looking up on YouTube.