in: Reviews

January 24, 2012

BSO Chamber Players Let Down Hair in Brahms

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Shiny crania versus hirsute (Stu Rosner photo)

The principal players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra are all exalted musicians. When they gather as the BSO Chamber Players, they are certain to make music on a very high level.  Their execution is never less that super-refined. This year their programming is geographically themed, with previous forays in some out-of-the-way places. On the past Sunday in Jordan Hall though, we were serenaded in Austro-German style by works of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms—not much of a geographic stretch!

Mozart’s top-drawer Serenade in C minor, K.388 (384a), for two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons, got things started. The movements alternated Mozart’s pathos with his humor and light. Some moments sounded quite volkish, but the scary Commendatore always hovered, sending his warning themes from an icy depth. The players adopted a somewhat early-music approach with limited vibrato and rather too much refinement for my taste. Some raucous moments such as those one hears with early authentic instrument ensembles might have better suited the piece.

The middle of the programatic sandwich was meatless early Beethoven, his familiar Serenade in D for flute, violin, and viola, Op. 25, which we all have heard so often in elevators and cocktail receptions that even the lively and attentive performances by flutist Elizabeth Rowe, violinist Malcolm Lowe, and violist Steven Ansell, could not redeem it from occasional-music status.

The seating for Alan Boustead’s nonet arrangement of Brahms’s Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11, was in the shape of narrow horseshoe with James Sommerville in the middle. The string players on the left were almost in a straight line which, although giving an appropriate soloistic prominence to Malcom Lowe, also made for a generous blend for the three other strings: violist Steven Ansell, cellist Jules Eskin, and double bass Edwin Barker.

After the chirpy Beethoven, what a pleasure it was to be in Brahms’s beery world. In this hefeweissbier reduction from the orchestral arrangement, all of the froth was maintained while the clarity was enhanced. Here, finally, the players let down their hair a bit and succumbed to the surging and urgency endemic in the master’s best works, perhaps also because they have played Boustead’s arrangement several times before. Stylistically the players served Brahms’s passion with juicier tone and more throbbing vibrato. There were qualities of pleasure, surprise and momentum that had not been so noticeable in the Beethoven and the Mozart.

With the exception of Edwin Barker, who provided the cheerfully dependable foundation, all of the players had predictably excellent solo opportunities. Of course, Malcolm Lowe and James Sommerville played superbly, and there were no less ravishing moments from the others, especially clarinetist William R. Hudgins and oboist John Ferrillo.

In the opinion of this experienced chamber music presenter, though, the program order was poorly planned. The Beethoven serenade should have been the sprightly opener with deeper Mozart and Brahms works following in order of musical substance and weight.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

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