The place to be on the snowy and chilly afternoon of Sunday afternoon, January 16, was inside the Concord Academy Performing Arts Center where the Concord Chamber Players were presenting one of their estimable series of concerts. Estimable, because its founder, Wendy Putnam, a Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist who founded this valuable organization in January, 2000, brings with her several Boston Symphony colleagues to make music five times a season. For this concert, the third in this season’s series, she brought along Thomas Martin, clarinet, Richard Sebring, horn, Richard Ranti, bassoon, Steven Ansell, viola, Michael Reynolds, ‘cello, and Lawrence Wolfe, double bass, surely not your “garden variety” list of artists. All of these players hold significant positions within the BSO’s roster of world-class players and are well known to BSO attendees, so quality of execution and presentation was a foregone conclusion.
And they did not disappoint. The concert began with a novelty — a five- instrument version of Richard Strauss’s beloved Till Eulenspiegel in a smile-inducing transcription by Franz Hasenöhrl, which won the composer’s seal of approval when it was first presented in 1945. Transcriptions of major orchestral works for a greatly reduced number of players to perform in parlors at home has been an established tradition in Europe for many years. Despite this, I was leery of a five-instrument condensation of a major Straussian large orchestra work famed for its brilliant orchestration. And indeed, much of the visceral weight of the score was sacrificed in this scaled-down version, but surprisingly, none of its charm. This was a very canny scale-down scored for violin, clarinet, bassoon, horn and double bass, and while not a literal transcription – several redundancies in the original were dispensed with – the music retained its original shape and direction, and the five players handily conveyed much of the sense of the original, albeit within a quieter dynamic, and Putnam’s treacherous violin solo’s downward plunge was neatly dispatched. All in all, this was a pleasing, engaging concert opener.
The surprising revelation of the afternoon was a brilliant performance of the Serenade in C Major for String Trio, op. 10 by the protean Hungarian musician Ernö Dohnányi. Not as well known today, Dohnányi was, in addition to being a first-class composer, a virtuoso pianist, a talented conductor, and, as Steven Ledbetter pointed out in his excellent program note “…regarded as the most versatile Hungarian composer since Franz Liszt, and the one who played the greatest role in the development of Hungary’s musical life early in the 20th century… He grew up in a musical family and passed the art on to his own offspring – his grandson is the conductor Christoph von Dohnányi.”
The op. 10 Serenade begins with a strong rhythmic cell – dum dum da-dum – marked Marcia: Allegro which impels much of the movement forward and introduces an almost Dvorakian style, though not quite as melody-based. After this incisive workout, the second movement, Romanza: Adagio non troppo, quasi andante ensued, with its deeply expressed emotions beautifully limned by violist Steven Ansell. Much of this Serenade sounds almost viola-centric, and he happily relished his every opportunity, much to the delight of the audience and his companions on the stage. He “starred” again in the well worked out Scherzo: Vivace third movement, though it was an equal pleasure to watch and hear ‘cellist Michael Reynolds, ever the watchful and collaborative colleague. The haunting and skillfully written Tema con variazione: Andante con moto afforded all three players many opportunities to deliciously interact, something these players do every day on stage in Symphony Hall, but a special pleasure to observe in this more intimate setting. The Rondo (Finale): Allegro Vivace began and maintained throughout an almost moto perpetuo sense of active forward motion, spurred on by the vigorous and energetic playing of all concerned. What emerged from all of this was the sense of a discovery of an important string trio, though the famous musical pedagogue Sir Donald Francis Tovey had discovered it years before and deemed this Serenade one of the most important additions to the string trio repertoire since Mozart and Beethoven. It’s easy to hear why – this is a major work by a masterful composer, and we must thank Putnam and The Concord Chamber Music Society for its revival in such an elegant performance.
After a brief intermission, the entire ensemble returned for a traversal of Beethoven’s charming and energetically brilliant Septet in E-flat Major, op. 20. Its six movements offer many opportunities for the individual musicians to shine – particularly memorable were the delectable bassoon and clarinet solos in the heartfelt Adagio and the many masterful solos afforded in the Tema con Variazione: Andante. The final movement, ending with a fiery Presto, brought the work to a satisfyingly hearty conclusion. Throughout the Septet, double bass virtuoso Lawrence Wolfe was a veritable Rock of Gibraltar of security and artful elan for his six colleagues.
Kudos are due Wendy Putnam for her artistic leadership in bringing such a satisfying program to Concord, and additional praise should be brought to her many individual Concord business partners and individual contributors who have so faithfully and generously supported her valuable musical ministrations. The large, rapt audience maintained utter silence throughout the entire program — a tribute to their concentrated attention and appreciation for the musical gifts they were proffered.