That the lineup didn't include the orchestra's star flutist Emmanuel Pahud was of little consequence. Berlin Philharmonic's distinctively full-bodied sound and overall musical ethics were very much embodied in this quintet, whose members include flutist Michael Hasel, oboist Andreas Wittmann, clarinetist Walter Seyfarth and bassoonist Marion Reinhard. The blend was always airtight, often converging into hybrid timbres that subsumed the individual sounds.
Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet Op. 43 tapped that quality to extra-worldly ends: This masterwork is truly its own musical world, one that reveals numerous other realms within, all oddly gnarled, the more dense moments suggesting a rain forest in a parallel universe. A performance like this probes parts of the soul you didn't know about.
What it all means feels less out of reach than in Nielsen's later, high-density symphonies, thanks to the Wind Quintet's kinship with the composer's extroverted operas. McWilliam played his final-movement horn solo with highly personal rhetoric suggesting he had applied method acting to his phrase readings.
Kalevi Aho's 2006 Kvintetto, the concert's other major work, suggested that this Finnish composer is incapable of writing anything without an epic quality. With its marginal relationship to tonality, this piece was a lot about dichotomies, with movements divided into contrasting halves and the quintet itself tapped for its potentially contrasting sounds (the oboe brayed abrasively). Most arresting were moments when an individual instrument created a quiet undercurrent using long-held notes behind the other instrument's chatter. Quintet members even took turns playing offstage in the last movement, sounding like a distant choir that kept mutating.
The rest of the concert had Mozart's accomplished but dutiful Fantasie in F Minor K. 608 and Darius Milhaud's charming reconstituted film score La Cheminée du roi René that didn't leave the slightest footprint in one's memory.