in: Reviews

April 24, 2012

BSCP’s Travelogue in Latter-Day England


Rowe, Hudgins, Baksys, Sommerville, Svoboda and Ferrillo (Stu Rosner photo)

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players concluded their season-long travelogue with a program of English music at Jordan Hall on April 22. Representing Old Blighty were works of Adès, Britten, Elgar, and Gordon Jacob —  interesting choices not least for the fact that the oldest work on the program dated from 1892, with the next-oldest 40 years more recent than that.

Britten was given the bookend positions, with two early works, his Phantasy Quartet in F, for oboe and string trio, op.2 at the beginning, and his Sinfonietta for winds and strings, op. 1, at the end. Both works date from 1932 and show Britten’s rather self-conscious precocity. We have commented here on a performance of the Phantasy earlier this year, so it is less urgent for us to go into descriptive depth here. The performance it received from John Ferrillo, oboe, Malcolm Lowe, violin, Steven Ansell, viola, and Martha Babcock, cello, was as precise and idiomatic as one could hope for. Britten was rather fond of processional-recessional gestures, and the Phantasy has this palindromic feature, which relied on Babcock first, then the other strings (the oboe gets into the picture afterwards) to carry the march-like accompaniment figure first from, then, at the work’s end, to, silence. The execution was admirably gradual in both cases. Ferrillo’s tone was limpid, his phrasing precise. There was a spot of bother with his instrument in the penultimate section, but otherwise this was a perfectly rendered performance.

Thomas Adès, now too old (40!) to be a Wunderkind, produced his second opera in 2004, on the subject — though not a direct setting — of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. From it he derived two additional pieces, one a vocal-orchestral suite of excerpts, the other a set of character sketches called Court Studies from The Tempest for clarinet and piano trio that use the music from the opera as source material without simply re-scoring it. The fact that this is his second work for this ensemble, the first being his Catch, op. 4 from 1991, undercuts any suspicion that Adès had cribbed the idea from Paul Moravec, whose 2002 Tempest Fantasy, for the identical ensemble, took the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. The two works are actually quite complementary: both are in an advanced neo-tonal idiom that tends more to gesture than lyricism, and while both depict characters from the play, Moravec focuses on the principals, whereas Adès takes a more Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern approach, sketching relatively minor personages. The piece’s six attached movements open with a flourish and a Stravinskyan baroque-y feeling alternating contrapuntal elegance with chunky chords. More hearings (which would not be unwelcome) would be necessary to isolate all the incidents, but we were left with a strong sense of canny artifice, with some striking sonorities created without resort to any advanced instrumental techniques. Clarinetist William R. Hudgins, joined by Lowe, Babcock, and pianist Vytas Baksys, were thoroughly persuasive in this inviting work.

The first half of the program closed with one of only three works we know of for wind quintet and piano, the Sextet in B-flat for piano and winds, op.6 by Gordon (Percival Septimus) Jacob (1895-1984). The Poulenc sextet for this ensemble gets heard with reasonable frequency, but the Brahmsian entry by Ludwig Thuille need to be heard more often, and a septet from the early 19th century by George Onslow for this ensemble plus contrabass also deserves revival. The Jacob Sextet dates from 1956, when he was at the height of his fame. (He was well known as a writer for winds.) Written in memory of Aubrey Brain, second only to his son Dennis as the most famous horn player of the mid-20th century, it is in five movements, beginning with an “Elegiac Prelude” that provides the central melodic element of the work, a dotted-rhythm figure for horn. The central “Cortege” begins with that motto but expands dramatically and touchingly; it is surrounded on one side by a scherzo and on the other by a minuet suggesting Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. Jacob was famously fond of Baroque touches and references. The finale is a rondo that segues into an epilogue on the principal motif and other music from the Cortege. Jacob’s writing cuts an interesting middle ground sonically between the blended sonorities of Thuille and the individuated ones of Poulenc; the work is superbly crafted and emotionally direct. The BSO’s principal winds, Elizabeth Rowe, flute, Ferrillo, Hudgins, James Sommerville, horn, and Richard Svoboda, bassoon, with Baksys, gave a thoroughly sympathetic and effective performance, with Sommerville especially appealing in the Cortege’s muted slow march, and Baksys superbly delicate in the prelude.

The strings had the next turn on the program, with Elgar’s now-popular Serenade in E minor for strings , op. 20, originally for string orchestra but here played one on a part by Lowe, Haldan Martinson, second violin, Ansell, Babcock and Edwin Barker, contrabass. Elgar, himself a violinist, thought well of this piece as encapsulating something of the essence of string sonority. Except for the central movement (of three), a Larghetto, the sound and substance do not put one in mind of the composer of the Enigma Variations, the First Symphony and the Cello Concerto, but it is an engaging and diverting work all the same. Considering Elgar’s background, it comes somewhat as a surprise in this quintet version how prominent the viola is in the outer movements, which Ansell exploited with some delectably plummy tones. It may be inherent in the piece, but overall we derived more admiration for the BSCP’s precision and surface sheen than for any depth of feeling they may have been conveying.

The program returned to Britten for the finish, with the Sinfonietta providing a vehicle for the entire ensemble (minus the piano). Also in three movements, it opens in fragments that eventually coalesce into a proper theme. Britten’s early compositions, as we adumbrated earlier, tend to showboat a bit with his advanced instrumental and compositional tricks (not totally unlike Adès). In this case, Britten demonstrated great imagination in his dispersal of thematic materials among the instruments and his exploitation of dry pizzicato in the development of the first movement and throughout the variation second movement. This latter also cultivates a pentatonic sound that conjures Debussy in all but harmony. The tarantella finale is the least Italianate one we’ve ever heard, and introduces some very characteristic Britten licks, such as his interlocking triadic arpeggios. Again, the BSCP performance was classy, unfussy and spirited, technically as adroit as the music.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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