in: Reviews

June 29, 2012

Youth, Remembrance from BSO Chamber Players


As other reviewers have noted, the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport is a gem, exquisite in every way, from the acoustics to the subtle and elegant architecture, to the magnificent setting. Last evening the approaching twilight seen through the huge window behind the performers provided a wonderful synesthetic backdrop of varying sky and colors, entirely appropriate to the changing moods of the Janáček and Martinů pieces. By the time the Brahms Trio was performed an appropriate darkness pervaded.

The program for this concert was a reprise of the BSCP’s opening program on October 16, 2011, with the Brahms Trio for Horn, Op. 40, replacing the Dvořák Quintet in G. (That program was reviewed by BMInt here.) The previous theme was geographic, but with the switch to the wonderful and wistful Brahms horn trio, written just after the death of his mother, one might suggest youth and remembrance as the theme for this program.

Leos Janáček wrote his well known and popular Youth suite for wind sextet, usually referred to as Mladi, in 1924 when he was 70 years old. The youth in question refers both to memories of youth and also to  Janáček ‘s youthful feelings in his productive final years, filled with new musical ideas and renewed enthusiasm for composition. It was performed here by the wind quintet of Elizabeth Rowe, flute, John Ferrillo, oboe, William R. Hudgins, clarinet, James Sommerville, horn, Richard Svoboda, bassoon, and an added bass clarinet played by Craig Nordstrom. The piece is witty and humorous, almost in a minimalist folk style. It opened with a haunting but lively theme in the oboe, quickly passed to the flute. The bassoon and bass clarinet provided a solid grounding that allowed the oboe, flute and clarinet to float and dance above. Throughout the performance the main source of liveliness and youthful exuberance was Rowe’s incomparable flute, especially in the third movement Allegro con moto, which became the central focus of the piece. Rowe alternated to piccolo in the March of the Blueboys, of disputed  origin but  certainly from Janáček’s youth in Brno. The mysterious freshness of youth was made evident here, and then somehow cubistically analyzed by the other instruments, the way a prism disperses white light into colors.

The prolific Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů left his Czech homeland in 1923 and moved to Paris, where he studied informally under Roussel at the Schola Cantorum and absorbed the influence of Cocteau’s group and jazz. Martinů’s little-known Sextet for piano and winds, H. 174, written in 1929, is scored for piano (played here by Vytas Baksis), flute, oboe, clarinet and two bassoons (the second played by Gregg Henegar) and consists of five short movements: a lyrical, ambulatory Preludium, a nostalgic, inward-looking Adagio, a wispy and fluttery Scherzo, a not very bluesy yet fun and subtle Blues, and a lively Finale with the feeling of the Cirque Medrano, evoking both grit and dazzle.  The performance was fresh and lively, evoking the rapidly changing sights and moods experienced by a flaneur wandering the streets of Paris. Especially memorable were the two Divertimenti. The first, the Scherzo, was a sprightly duet between flute and piano that felt like a celebration of the fountains and birds of Paris, at once an unimportant passing moment and at the same time a central moment that gives meaning to life. The Blues movement was played with real understanding and a subtle jazzy piano that nicely brought out the blues elements.

The Brahms Trio in E-flat major, Op. 40 for violin, horn and piano was written for Waldhorn, the instrument that Brahms’s father played and with which Brahms was very familiar as a child. The Waldhorn is valveless, and the available scales are achieved by a selection of interchangeable crooks. The modern valve horn was introduced, primarily by Heinrich Stölzel, around 1815 and the valves were initially intended to replace the many crooks, allowing quick change of scales while the notes continued to be selected by hand horn technique. But horn players quickly found that they could play the full chromatic scales without hand-stopping, a considerable advantage but also a controversial innovation, having the effect of producing a generally louder, harsher sound. Brahms clearly wanted the softer, darker and more mysterious sound, which is why he specified the Waldhorn. With the modern piano and violin the proper balance is easier to achieve, although Brahms’s intent needs to be kept in mind.

Sommerville quickly found the appropriate level, matched well with David Deveau’s piano; Malcolm Lowe’s violin was occasionally overshadowed. The Trio is usually thought to take the listener through the stages of mourning, and this performance successfully evoked the combination of loss, dismay, and bewilderment of the Andante first movement. The horn is the key instrument in this piece and Sommerville magically infused its appearances with the deep feeling Brahms intended. The Scherzo emphasized defiance, led by the insistent piano, and alternated with episodes of sober reflection.  In the Adagio, the horn carried the weight of pain and grief, but was then revivified in the Finale — which, as Clara Schumann put it, is “teeming with new life,” but here in a way that showed how accepting life means simultaneously accepting death.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.


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