There was something Hungarian in the air this weekend: on Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published an article about Hungarian wine; Sunday it was music’s turn. The Boston Symphony Chamber Players‘ January 10 concert at Jordan Hall was an all-Hungarian-themed affair, featuring a rare local performance of Béla Bartok’s sole surviving Piano Quintet, the Ligeti Bagatelles for wind quintet, and an orchestration of four of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. Too bad the old Café Budapest is gone—some sour cherry soup or a dobos torte would have finished the day perfectly. Nevertheless, the day up to that point was quite good, thanks in considerable measure to BSCP.
The Bartok Piano Quintet, Sz. 23, DD 77, completed in 1904 and revised around 1920, was actually his third attempt at this form; an earlier completed one has been lost (though I found online one reference to a purported performance of this earlier one—it might have been an error), and only fragments remain of the second. This one was not published until 1970, but it was evidently good enough in the composer’s eyes to warrant touching up in a manner that did not attempt to update the style to that highly individual idiom he had begun to develop by the late teens of the 20th century. This long (nearly 50 minutes), youthful yet professionally mature work was apparently popular in its day, and so the performance by BSCP and pianist David Deveau is welcome on both musical and historical grounds. That said, had Bartok not developed his aggressively modernist yet highly personal style and continued writing works such as this, he would have been a respected, yet probably under-performed composer like Ernö Dohnanyi.
As to the work itself, after a slow, rather Brahmsian introduction—including a whiff of the gypsy-style Hungarianism Bartok later took pains to replace with more authentic Magyar sounds—the movement presents largely motivic-derived materials in a chromatically tinged late-Romantic diatonicism. The scherzo came next, a rhythmically impish piece whose outer sections featured a tune in 2+2+2+3, as well as string glissandi and corresponding piano smears suggesting Bartok’s later style (maybe those 1920 revisions sneaked these in?). The slow movement, the heart of the work, begins in dark hues and whole-tone harmonies (maybe another later addition, as Bartok didn’t come into contact with Debussy until 1907), and establishes two themes, both emphasizing a motive elaborating a turn, and other like a mordent, both upright and inverted. This movement is attached to the finale, which uses similar motivic matter to construct—shades of Brahms’s op. 25!—a jaunty “alla zingarese,” not omitting the then-obligatory fugal passage. The ensemble playing was everything you would expect from BSO principals; although the first movement seemed a bit aloof, they gained their emotional footing and by the finale were in fully-committed top form, not least pianist Deveau, whose approach, abetted by Bartok’s writing, was collegial and integrative.
We have spent a lot of space here on the Bartok, owing to its rarity in live performance. The Ligeti Bagatelles for wind quintet—a selection and arrangement by the composer from a larger collection of piano pieces—is now a staple of wind quintet repertoire and has in fact been performed earlier this season. The six movements range from bright and sassy to elegiac to a very Bartokian night-piece. For present purposes it should suffice to say that the BSCP brought to these sometimes-funny-sometimes-tragic small works a sheen and polish, and a sharply-honed ensemble dynamic, that would be hard to surpass. We may single out the third movement, in which a melody is handed off from player to player against a gently murmuring accompaniment, to praise the elegant phrasing and subtly shaded tone of Elizabeth Rowe’s flute.
To wrap up, the ensemble premiered a commissioned orchestration by BU composer Martin Amlin of four of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, specifically nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 (no. 1 was left off the program, but BSCP performed all four), for the entire BSCP group, comprising the wind quintet, the string quartet, and bass Edwin Barker. This is not as easy a job as one might assume: the balance between strings and winds in this ten-some is quite different from that of an orchestra, which creates both problems and opportunities. Mr. Amlin’s solution, it seemed to these ears, kept the prominent role of the strings as seen in those of the dances Brahms himself orchestrated, leaving the winds mostly for color and the occasional contrasting melodic foray (often to pizzicato string accompaniment). One could not, therefore, accuse Amlin of hijacking Brahms to his own personality, as Schoenberg did with the Piano Quartet No. 1, but—except for the sinfully popular no. 5, which he handled with greater freedom—his reticence in treating the 10 players as independent soloists may have been unduly conservative. The performances of these pieces, it almost goes without saying, were bravura—and unconducted, at that. The orchestrator was on hand for the audience’s strong approbation.