The Phillips Collection's fine concert series continued Sunday with a charming outing of French music by Ensemble 4.1, a German group formed in 2013, consisting of four woodwind players and pianist Thomas Hoppe. Hoppe, who dazzled at a Kennedy Center concert with the Atos Trio a few seasons ago, provided an expressive, sophisticated grounding to every piece. The first half was all Francis Poulenc; the Clarinet Sonata, the Élégie for Horn and Piano, and the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano. The playing was at a high international level, with precise intonation from all concerned, and detailed interpretive cohesion. The wind players performed standing up, and moved expressively but not annoyingly.
I was most impressed with the powerful sonority of bassoonist Christoph Knitt. One rarely hears the instrument sing with such resonance; and this was particularly striking as he stood (in the trio) on the left, with his bell pointing away from the audience, the opposite of the standard arrangement. Fritz Pahlmann (horn) and Alexander Glücksmann (clarinet) were masters as well. Jörg Schneider's musicianship was unassailable. My only criticism of Hoppe is that after horn Élégie, for which he had to play at an orchestral volume, he didn't then scale the sound back for the Trio.
After intermission, Ensemble 4.1 gave us a true rarity, a quintet by Walter Gieseking. This quintessential German pianist made a specialty of French music, and this work, written when he was 24, is a melding of Debussy and Karol Szymanowski, with strong overtones of Strauss. It is a substantial, assured, and well-constructed piece. The textures were perhaps too much the same — more dry, martial or angular material would've helped — but this was music of pith and beauty.