Peter Quantrill shares his thoughts on this remarkable chamber music group


Nonconformism in the Low Countries has taken many forms. To pass quickly over only its salient manifestations in the history of music, the country already enjoyed a liberal conservative culture when the English composer Peter Philips escaped to Flanders in 1582, in flight from Reformation-related persecution at home, and eventually settled in Antwerp, at a time when the Low Countries of Belgium and the Netherlands fell under a single, Spanish-controlled dominion.

Resistance to that dominion had already been crucially fomented by the stand of a Dutch nobleman, the Count of Egmont, against the despotic exercise of Spanish rule by the Duke of Alba. Imprisoned for heresy and executed in 1568, Egmont became the hero of a play by Goethe. This embroidered history in turn inspired from Beethoven, that Bonn-born musician of Dutch lineage and decidedly non-conformist temperament, incidental music which soon became emblematic of personal struggle and private moral conviction.

Four centuries later, figures such as Anne Frank and the banker Walraven van Hall came to symbolise Dutch resistance to Nazi occupation, organised as it was by a raggle-taggle coalition of social democrats, communists and Catholics. Anti-hierarchical instincts and communitarian ideals run orange through Dutch blood. In the years after the end of the war, the renewal of Dutch musical life was not spearheaded by the leadership of hero figures but fostered by a fertile culture of ensemble music-making much as the citizens of Amsterdam gradually returned to the allotment settlements fringing the city and made their gardens grow again.

One such ensemble that sprang up from the musical soil of the Amsterdam Music Lyceum, progressive younger sibling to the traditional Conservatoire, was the Aulos Kwintet of winds. All five under the age of twenty, its members were drawn together not by a professor’s edict but by friendship and shared musical values, as well as the prospect of a working holiday in the USA. Oboist Edo de Waart, flautist Martine Bakker, clarinettist George Pieterson, hornist Jaap Verhaar and bassoonist Joep Terwey thus crossed the Atlantic for free in 1959, paying for their passage with concerts en voyage, and on their return came under the tutelage of Thom de Klerk, solo bassoonist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra.

It was de Klerk’s initiative to expand the ensemble from five to ten members in order to explore the rich but overlooked repertoire of double quintets beginning in practice with a pair of divertimenti, KV 166 and 186 by the teenage Mozart,. The young Aulos musicians soon took seriously a collaboration which might otherwise have fizzled out as a youthful jeu d’esprit. ‘Thom de Klerk was our motivation,’ remembers de Waart, ‘the undisputed grandmaster. He was one of the musical titans with a direct connection to the old playing traditions of the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mengelberg and Van Beinum. He wasn’t much of a conductor, but it didn’t matter that much: a well-trained ensemble will run by itself.’

Speaking to Saskia Törnqvist, author of the definitive and sumptuously illustrated history of the Nederlands Blazersensemble (Netherlands Wind Ensemble) (UItgeverij Hoogland & Van Klaveren, 2011), De Waart has recalled one particular lesson on Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik. ‘Every note and every phrase was put under the microscope by him and examined for intonation, rhythm, timbre and especially articulation and phrasing. When I came out after that lesson, I realized that a new world had opened up for me.’

The first official concert of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble (NWE) took place on 10 January 1961, with a programme which set the tone for its core repertoire in years to come, juxtaposing Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart with contemporary repertoire by Mátyás Seiber and the Dutch composer Henri C. van Praag. The members gradually won success in their own fields: Terwey joined the Concertgebouw Orchestra and De Waart and Han de Vries shared the orchestra’s principal oboe chair for a year. According to de Waart, it was this process of personal development that caused the ensemble’s original members to drift apart. The young oboist began to put down his instrument and picked up a baton, winning the Mitropolous Competition in 1964 and with it a post as assistant to Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. When he crossed back over the Atlantic after a frustrating year – he estimated to Gramophone that he had spent no more than five hours actually in charge of the NYPO musicians – it was in a much more satisfying role at the Concertgebouw as the assistant to Bernard Haitink.

Interviewed again for this anthology in July 2020, De Waart took up the story of the ensemble’s renaissance. He was approached by Terwey, who had taken over running the NWE after the sudden death of De Klerk in October 1966, aged just 54. ‘Joep and one or two others asked me if I would take over his job as conductor. We discussed the personnel, let some people go and added some others.’ Bit by bit, the second incarnation of the NWE came together. ‘People were chosen first of all on what sort of a guy they were, and after that as a musician – it was a brotherhood! At that point women in orchestras nearly all played strings, it took another ten years for that ceiling to be broken.’

Drawing its members from the wind sections of up to six different orchestras, the ensemble could only meet for rehearsal at dead of night and early on Sunday mornings, at a church in Amsterdam. ‘I remember driving at top speed from Rotterdam,’ says De Waart, ‘and doing the journey in 35 minutes because the roads were almost empty at that time of day!’ For the relaunch concert in April 1967 they hired the Small Hall of the Concertgebouw and cooked up a program of Gounod’s Petite symphonie concertante, the Dvořák Serenade for winds and a new commission from Peter Schat. A sell-out concert and glowing reviews ensued, but perhaps more significantly so did a call to De Waart from the executive producer of Philips Classics, Jaap van Ginniken, who had attended the concert and liked what he heard.

At van Ginniken’s behest, the NWE took the Gounod and Dvořák items into the studio, and their debut album was filled out with the F major Minuet and Finale by the teenage Schubert, extant fragments of what had been conceived as a four-movement Octet. Critics were soon struck by the distinctive NWE sonority, its unanimity and finesse. ‘I cannot imagine a more refreshing sound than that of the Dvořák D minor Serenade which Edo de Waart and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble have recorded for Philips,’ reported Gramophone once the LP appeared in the UK in 1971. ‘This playing blends discipline and spontaneity in just the right proportions … This record has deserved all the praise it has received both on artistic and technical grounds.’

However, Van Ginniken had much grander designs in mind for the ensemble: the complete wind music of Mozart, which had only begun to gain wider popularity during the past decade thanks to the concerts of the NWE, and the efforts of the London Wind Soloists, prompted by the Decca producer Erik Smith. This project became the focus of the NWE’s work in the studio over the course of the next year, while its Amsterdam concerts continued to push the envelope with unconventional venues and cutting-edge programs. De Waart recalls a fortnight-long rehearsal period dedicated to embedding Mozart in the ensemble’s collective mind and fingers. ‘We rented a place close to the beach, 30 minutes out of Amsterdam, not recording anything, just rehearsing. We worked hard on unanimity of intonation and tone as well as ensemble. The sound was always very important – it had always been a priority for Ton de Klerk when I played in the ensemble.’

In the autumn of 1969 the NWE began recording the Mozart LPs, and playing even the little-known divertimenti in concert so that they had performance experience. ‘We worked very diligently and on rhythmic precision,’ remembers de Waart, ‘so that a quaver would sound different from a crotchet and a dot was different from a dot and a dash. And we carried on working on these things in between the sessions and the concerts.’ Speaking to Saskia Törnqvist, the horn player Jan Wolff recalled how De Klerk had changed the fortunes of this now-familiar repertoire. ‘Mozart’s serenades had hardly been played in the Concertgebouw. That all changed in 1960. In no time, those serenades were being performed in the Small Hall of the Concertgebouw, and they really exploded.’

In their own way, the NWE belonged to the contemporary musical expression of counter-culture as much as Amsterdam’s period-instrument and new-music groups such as Frans Brüggen’s recorder ensembles and Louis Andriessen’s Orkest de Volharding. However, as the flowing tempi and mellifluous phrasing of these Mozart recordings confirm, De Waart and his men placed themselves at one remove from the hotly contested field of historically informed doctrines. ‘I didn’t want to play any part on that battleground,’ says De Waart. Day to day, much like the London Wind Soloists (LWS), the NWE members plied their trade in traditional symphonic ensembles which prized cantabile and legato principles, and they saw no reason to abandon those principles in the late-Classical and Romantic repertoire which made up their bread and butter.

According to the oboist Werner Herbers, De Klerk’s leadership style had been that of an ‘enlightened despot’; as a friend and contemporary of his colleagues, De Waart naturally took a more collegiate approach. ‘I didn’t have to ask, the way I did when appearing with big orchestras, do they like me? That’s a big deal for young conductors. Do they hate me? That never came up. I was an organic part of it. Occasionally we would fight. If it didn’t mean much to fight to the death I wouldn’t, but if it was about intonation and the fluidity of the sound, I was there to make it possible for them to play as well as possible. So I would say, calm down a bit here, use a little less vibrato there. And they would ask, can you hold that upbeat a little longer? In that sense, it was the best time in my life.’

What distinguished the NWE from the LWS was the relative youth of its members, and its status as primarily a concert-giving rather than record-making ensemble. It is these attributes, perhaps, that lend both a sense of fun and fresh engagement to the lighter albums made for Philips such as the ‘Little Marches by Great Masters’ and operatic transcriptions of Mozart and Rossini. ‘There was no money,’ says De Waart. ‘You had to have the mentality that “I have an orchestral job, and I am not going to play in the NWE to get rich.” The fees for each rehearsal and concert were tiny. We were all in our twenties, and we didn’t want loud, testosterone guys; we wanted nice people who would like playing in an ensemble. We weren’t all saints, but we could stand each other quite well!’

Philips’ marketing strategy played on the youth of the NWE members with left-field cover designs that blind-sided a few older critics. One High Fidelity reviewer remarked that the musicians ‘appear to have a mean age of around sixteen’; according to his colleague R.D. Darrell, fondly remembered for such critical neologisms as ‘stereoism’ and ‘auditorium-authentic’, they looked ‘more like soccer players than musicians’ on the cover of the Mozart opera arrangements, which also exercised John Warrack in Gramophone: ‘Why the sleeve should show them half-concealed in a patch of giant rhubarb I cannot imagine, unless this is part of the jokiness of the whole enterprise.’ All the same, when it came to the music on the grooves, they had no complaints about the brilliance and wit of the NWE’s performances.

Jaap van Ginniken’s death in August 1972, aged 58, came as a shock and a loss to everyone associated with Philips; the NWE albums had already won two Edison prizes and attracted a following for the ensemble on the other side of the Atlantic. Then De Waart left the ensemble in 1975, with his time stretched between music directorships in Rotterdam and San Francisco. However, the NWE continued to explore the niches of the wind repertoire on record without a conductor. In 1978 they made an especially beguiling album of octet partitas by Franz Krommer, a Czech-born Viennese contemporary of Beethoven. It proved to be their last Philips recording: a joyful sign-off, with the ensemble having already evolved some years earlier into a more flexible ensemble, giving politically charged concerts and stagings of new music that boosted the ensemble’s profile and kept its audiences young and enthusiastic but also placed some strain on those players doubling as members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, whose management took fright at any sniff of musical revolution.

It was for the NWE, not his own Orkest de Volharding, that Louis Andriessen wrote a defining work of the 1970s, De Staat (‘Republic’) which they premiered in 1976: a piece of engulfing momentum aimed by its composer ‘against the symphony orchestra’ and a summit of the ensemble’s commitment to new music which was hardly reflected by their Philips catalogue except for a diversion into the visionary, sometimes provocative, French-American world of George Antheil, in the company of another Dutch luminary of the contemporary scene, Reinbert de Leeuw.

‘I wasn’t so interested in recording new music at that point,’ says de Waart. ‘I did a lot of world premieres as a conductor, Dutch composers and others, and almost none of it has survived. I don’t think there were any masterpieces that we missed and should have recorded, and there certainly wasn’t any great desire on the part of Philips [to record the NWE in new music]. Andriessen became famous quite a few years later.’

‘We never thought of ourselves as being smoky and funky,’ concludes the conductor. ‘I left the ensemble partly because some of the others wanted to play in t-shirts with their faces on. And I said no, purist that I was: that’s ridiculous. I could see Mozart on your t-shirt, but not your own face. Maybe I’m too Dutch for that!’ For over half a century, the NWE has continued ‘being Dutch’ and leading a nonconformist revolution in the perception and purpose of a wind ensemble, from the status of dinner-party accompanists in the 1770s to cultural activists in the 1970s, and realising a multimedia, education-oriented vision for our own time.

Netherlands Wind Ensemble – Complete Philips Recordings available HERE.