Call it luck of the draw, but we don’t think we’ve been to a New England Conservatory Chamber Orchestra concert before that has involved the winds in any substantial way. Thus its performance on February 15th at Jordan Hall, featuring works by Hugo Wolf, Haydn and Bartók, was an opportunity to take in a wider color spectrum than we previously have heard with them. This conductorless ensemble, under the guidance of Donald Palma, did not disappoint (they seldom do), and moreover equaled the standards of the leading professional groups of its type, such as Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and A Far Cry.
Another first for us (guess we just don’t get out much) was the chamber orchestra arrangement Hugo Wolf made of his popular Italian Serenade for string quartet. The “serenade” title was, one might say, a bit aspirational as things worked out: only the first movement of the projected Mozart-like suite made it to paper before Wolf’s mind gave out. Still, its six-plus minutes are a perennial delight. NECCO approached it in a subdued, relaxed, gemächlich way, with superb dynamic nuance and balance (especially between strings and winds) and close attention to contrapuntal details, which Wolf’s expanded orchestration cleverly enhanced. There were well-deserved solo bows for violist Alice Marie Weber and cellist Dahae Kim.
Another possible first hearing for us, even less explicable than the Wolf, was Haydn’s Symphony No. 80 in D minor, Hob. I:80, a compact stunner of a masterpiece from 1784 (and apparently a favorite of Mozart as well). Minor-mode works by Haydn are comparatively rare, and this one is self-aware in an almost postmodern way. It opens with a stern and taut melody that NECCO’s unnamed program annotator (Palma?) suggests might even be a spoof of the younger composer; by its end it has, in Haydn’s ingenious way, morphed into a major cadence. The second subject seems almost a placeholder, while the surprise is a third melody, a waltz-like tune of sublime goofiness that, we’re happy to report, NECCO declined to ham up any further. What they did do, throughout the movement, was pay loving and expressive attention to Haydn’s numerous Luftpausen, to comic or thrilling effect (usually both).
The slow movement of Haydn’s no. 80 is its longest, charming and subtle, with some surprising chromatic passages. This evoked from NECCO its smartest and most elegant playing, well paced and keyed by concertmaster Kobi Malkin’s gestures (the seating in NECCO shifts for every piece, so Malkin shared duties with Jennifer Wey in the Wolf and Robyn Bollinger in the Bartók). The minuet returns to the Sturm und Drang of the opening D minor, with astonishing sleight-of-hand transitions from minor to major and back. The finale, though, is the work’s capstone, full of off-kilter rhythms and general snap, crackle and pop that displayed NECCO’s altogether superior ensemble work, including an audience-fooling false ending. This symphony has been under-recorded for its brilliance, but you should check it out on various streaming services. We’re sorry to report that this program seems not to have been put up on NEC’s InstantEncore station.
The single strings-only work on the program occupied the second half. Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra was among his last works written in Europe, a second commission from Paul Sacher’s Basel Chamber Orchestra in 1939, following the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by three years. Sacher’s idea was to have something rather lightweight to complement the seriousness of the earlier piece, but just as it was almost impossible for Haydn to write music that was not at least witty when not funny, lighthearted is clearly a relative concept in Bartók’s output. The opening movement commits to a warm sonority, but is a bit heavy until the second subject. As with the Wolf, NECCO stressed contrapuntal lines; neither did it shy away from the score’s darker aspects. There was some gorgeous playing, as well, in the sectional duet of violas and cellos/bass in the movement’s coda.
The molto adagio middle movement is a classic bit of Bartók night music in the form of a slow fugue, somewhat reminiscent of MSPC. NECCO carefully controlled and sculpted the dynamics, with occasional piercing stabs. As one would expect, the work’s sprightliest music comes in the finale, but it struggles for dominance until the famous — and brief — pizzicato waltz ushers in the jubilant coda. We can find nothing whatever to complain about in NECCO’s execution.