Audience members, entering through 16th-century Spanish doors, amidst 16th-century Flemish tapestries of the “Tapestry Room,” were further treated to the Musicians from Marlboro at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s “Sunday Concert Series” on May 10. The program consisted of compositions from three centuries, beginning with Nielsen’s Serenata in vano (1914), followed by Haydn’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4, “Sunrise” (1796-97), and after a brief intermission, Schubert’s Octet in F Major, D. 803, Op. 166 (1824). Each piece, reflective of its time, brought its own character to the concert, keeping the musicians and audience on their toes.
A programmatic piece, Nielsen’s Serenata in vano depicts the story of a group of musicians sent to serenade someone’s lover. After the woman fails to respond to the musicians’ melodies, the musicians decide their effort has been in vain, and accompany themselves with music as they head home towards the countryside. Orchestrated for clarinet, bassoon, horn, cello and double bass, this piece takes the listener through many musical textures and genres, from the lyrical clarinet melody with bass accompaniment of the opening, to the brusque march that ends the piece. Clarinetist Pascal Archer exhibited a great range of musical skill in the expressive cantabile melodies, agile ornamental figures and runs, in addition to a great tone and breath control, resulting in smooth melodies and subtle dynamic changes throughout the piece. Also impressive was the synchrony between the bassoon (played by Jennifer Collins Monroe) and clarinet, their ability to weave in and out of the ensemble’s sound. A peculiar grouping of instruments, this piece certainly had a unique sound, not one that I am persuaded I was drawn to. Overall, however, the musicians presented a fine rendition of this dramatic composition.
Referred to as the “Sunrise” Quartet due to the rising opening theme of the violin over sustained chords by the rest of the ensemble, violinists Sarah Kapustin and Lily Francis, along with violist Julianne Lee and cellist Peter Wiley, gave a solid presentation of this famed Haydn chamber piece. The unsung hero of this performance was cellist Peter Wiley who steadily provided strong support and accompaniment for the other members of the ensemble, yet when given the opportunity, played beautifully moving melodies as well. The accuracy of each musician’s staggered entrances in imitative counterpoint style in the first and second movements (Allegro con spirit followed by an Adagio movement) was impressive, as well as their synchronized grace notes and trills in the Finale – Allegro, ma non troppo fourth movement. The musicians appeared to have the most fun in the fourth movement with its many occurrences of melodic and ornamental interaction between the instruments, making this movement likely the most enjoyable for the audience as well.
The highlight of this concert was certainly the performance of Schubert’s Octet in F Major for winds and strings. Commissioned by renowned 19th-century clarinetist Ferdinand Troyer, the octet features the clarinet, in addition to two violins, viola, cello, double bass, bassoon and horn filling out the remainder of the ensemble. Once again, clarinetist Pascal Archer performed magnificently. As Troyer was a talented musician, Schubert’s clarinet part in this piece encompasses the entire range of the instrument; throughout the six movements, the clarinet leads the ensemble through its use of its highest tonal register, sweeping lyrical melodies, as musical substitute for both the flute (lengthy melodies in the high register) and trumpet (repetitive leaping fanfares), as well as through its solo virtuosic runs, trills and other embellishments. Archer mastered each of these challenges in turn: his upper register sang poetically without any strain, his cantabile melodies were full of longing and passion, and his ornaments were always played with ease, though quick in tempo.
The ensemble opened and concluded the Octet at their best. The first movement, an Adagio – Allegro introduction to the piece, illustrated the ensemble’s musical talent through their accurate call-and-response interactive playing, the winds conversing with the upper strings. Horn player Paul LaFollette was a bit murky-sounding on his first ornamental turn, yet quickly redeemed himself at the end of this movement and throughout the rest of the piece; the high point of his performance being the lyrical melody of the second movement. The theme of the first movement of this piece was derived from Schubert’s art song Der Wanderer, a fun musical benefit for those listeners who caught the reference.
The sixth and final movement, with tempo marking Andante molto – Allegro molto, had a different feel than any of the other, more upbeat movements of this Octet. Here Schubert pits a jaunty-sounding section against an intense, somewhat eerie segment of music. The tremolos he introduces at the beginning of the movement, representing the latter, more peculiar-sounding section of music, always seem to return when least expected. These tremolo figures lend an aspect of uneasiness to the musical atmosphere, as we never know when they will return and on which instrument they will be played. The ensemble enhanced the inherent drama of this movement through their repetitive full crescendos, played in unison as if preparing for the final cadence of this piece, which is inevitably delayed for some time. They also did a magnificent job in hitting unresolved chords with great pitch accuracy, afterwards leaving a breath in the music as the audience begs for these sounds to resolve. These abrupt unresolved chords propel the music forward, and once again, the audience does not know what to expect. Finally, the music begins an intense rhythmic, tempo, and dynamic build-up complete with increased energy and the piece concludes. The ensemble had been building up to this difficult conclusion throughout the movement, and ended the piece in a whirlwind of finely played music. Rewarded with a standing ovation, this performance of Schubert’s Octet was presented with great musical stamina and skill on behalf of this ensemble of accomplished musicians.
Elizabeth Perten is a doctoral student in Musicology at Brandeis University and also is pursuing a Joint MA in Women’s and Gender Studies. She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University, with a BA in Music.