in: Reviews

April 4, 2011

Hommages from Top-Form BSO Chamber Players

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I’m not sure how often it’s said, but Jordan Hall can be a really excellent place to spend a Sunday afternoon. Pop in for a short concert, no traffic to worry about, prices often reasonable. You’re refreshed, and you still have much of the day still in front of you.

Today’s program, on April 3, had the BSO Chamber Players running through an eclectic, yet balanced, set. They led off with two suites of Kurtág miniatures. Hommage à R. Sch. is Kurtág ‘s actual title, assuming of course that one reads “-obert -umann.” His manner of Characterstücke seems to be the main reference point (also his op. 132, from which Kurtág’s clarinet/viola/piano/bass drum [!] instrumentation is derived). The six movements all have programmatic titles, many with references to the Schumann’s various alter egos — Florestan, Eusebius, Master Raro. Each was extremely short. All were generally under two minutes; one was under twenty seconds! They worked in an almost pictorial language; fragmentary gestures presented a scene that vanished as soon as it was conjured. Kurtág has a very deep knowledge of the instruments he wrote for. Their timbres wove into a single complex. William R. Hudgins’s clarinet was particularly liquid and sensual. The Bagatelles for Flute, Double Bass, and Piano, Op. 14d, felt cast from a similar mold — equally expert in construction, but broader in scope and technique. Another Hommage was included, here à J.S.B. One movement riffed on Debussy’s La Fille aux chevaux de lin.

Brahms’s Horn Trio, Op. 40, isn’t the only such piece, but he essentially opened and closed the book on the subject. He was really on when he wrote it. I don’t recall the last time I heard the piece, but once the musicians started, it might as well have been yesterday. The quality of each movement’s thematic material is very high. It’s all chiseled and clear. While the material is developed in an obviously, um, Brahmsian fashion, the fundamental melodies never get far out of sight. James Sommerville brought out the full timbral range of the horn, from a bucolic fog to the fierce pant of dogs on the hunt. Malcolm Lowe’s violin was warm and intimate. Inon Barnatan’s supple phrasing reminded everyone in the audience that Brahms isn’t deserving of his reputation as a stiff. The group led an exciting gallop through the last movement, reminding us also that Brahms is quite fun.

Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet — the Piano Quintet in A Major — closed the program. Even by Schubert’s standards, this is a piece teeming with melody. Just when one instrument seems to subside, another will burst from the surface without missing a beat. As the program notes had it, the piece’s abundance extends to its form: five movements instead of a more typical four. To ask if this was a performance “for the ages” would seem to miss the point. The musicians — Barnatan, piano; Lowe, violin; Steven Ansell, viola; Jules Eskin, cello; Edwin Barker, bass — were having a blast, following all the ebbs and flow of the surface, grinning through much of it. A fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Adam Baratz is a composer and pianist. He lives in Cambridge.

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