The Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players program on November 18th at Jordan Hall pulled a further set of performances out of the orchestra’s guest artists for the week, conductor Thomas Adès and pianist Kirill Gerstein, sitting both of them at the same keyboard for what may be Beethoven’s gnarliest work. Gerstein later returned for the Brahms Piano Quintet, and sandwiched between these were two works by the recently deceased Elliott Carter. Since the Carter works were scheduled well ahead of the composer’s death, the performances Sunday constituted the best kind of commemoration—the matter-of-fact sort that acknowledges Carter’s continued relevance by unselfconsciously keeping his work alive.
First things first: Adès and Gerstein performed Beethoven’s four-hand arrangement of his Grosse Fuge from the op. 130 string quartet. When Beethoven prepared the entire quartet for piano rendition, the fugue constituted its finale. When, after protest from his publisher and some qualms of his own, Beethoven substituted another finale and kept the fugue as a stand-alone piece, he likewise separated the four-hand arrangement and published it as op. 134. The common practice of arranging works for piano four hands was an eminently utilitarian one, allowing broader dissemination of new works for orchestra and chamber ensembles to households where non-professionals could thereby get to hear them. One has to wonder, though, who Beethoven thought was going to tackle this fugue, which in its piano version entails so much cross-hand playing and reaching around one’s seatmate that only seasoned professionals could hope to bring it off. The score should display the prominent warning “Kids, don’t try this at home.” On the other (fifth?) hand, the Viennese bourgeoisie might have enjoyed the challenge.
Hearing the fugue (which actually, of course, is a multi-section piece that often interrupts its contrapuntal continuity to dramatic ends) in its piano version, rather a rarity now, affords the listener the advantage of clarity in keeping its dense counterpoint intelligible. This, indeed, was the principal virtue of the Adès-Gerstein collaboration. It also points up the dissonant harmonic clashes that can sometimes be smoothed out in the sonority of the strings. On the minus side, there were notable lapses of ensemble between the performers and a too-insistent boomy thumping on the regular musical pulse; string players can often soften that regularity. Adès and Gerstein, having just completed an arduous weekend of orchestral performances, deserve a bit of indulgence for the lack of refinement.
Elliott Carter (1908-2012) left a musical legacy that will take quite some time to sort out. It was interesting to note that the two works performed by the BSOCP date from his last decade and the end of his earliest stylistic period, leaving out anything from the large body of work on which he built his principal reputation. This is not a criticism, since as noted there was no intent when this concert was programmed to make it anything like a retrospective. Still, that body of middle-period work is the hardest for most of the public to digest, and it will be interesting to see if any of it becomes mainstream over the next, say, fifty years.
The first Carter item performed on Sunday was his Figment III for unaccompanied contrabass, performed by Edwin Barker. The work was written in 2007 for Donald Palma, another celebrated bassist (now on the NEC faculty), and in its three minutes comprises a kind of self-dialogue between a lyrical line on the one hand and gruff pizzicato and growling staccato on the other. Robert Kirzinger’s program note describes the work as a kind of etude, and that’s probably as good a handle as any. It goes by rather quickly and leaves the listener with a smile. Barker was as good as he ever is, which is exceptionally good; everything was clear, the singing line was gorgeous and the grumpy counter to it both comic and sometimes touching.
The second Carter installment was quite different (well, not entirely so, inasmuch as it also embodies Carter’s puckish wit, the single peg on which his most accessible works hang). The Woodwind Quintet from 1948 is one of Carter’s most popular pieces, with numerous jazzy licks, and occupies an interesting place in his œuvre, being one of his last tonal, neo-classical works and also a companion of sorts to his cello sonata of the same year, a much more introspective and burdened creation. The Quintet may also have been an influential work as well, in light of several important American wind quintets written in the several years afterwards by Ruth Crawford Seeger and Samuel Barber. As performed by Elizabeth Rowe flute, John Ferrillo, oboe; William R. Hudgins, clarinet; James Sommerville, horn; and Richard Svoboda, bassoon; the Carter Quintet was an effervescent romp of Haydnesque geniality. The piece is masterfully written for the instruments, with each player given some delightful turns in each of its two movements (we particularly like what Carter gave to the clarinet and bassoon, of which Hudgins and Svoboda made the most). The performance was exceptionally well balanced among the five players in terms of sonority, flow, dynamics and expression. In fact, we are tempted to say too well balanced—there are moments when some roughness would have been welcome, some edginess exhilarating. This was, for all its technical brilliance, a low-risk performance. Hold that thought.
After intermission, Gerstein returned with the remaining strings of the BSOCP (viz., Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violins, Steven Ansell, viola, and Jules Eskin, cello) for the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34. Of its tortured history in several different forms we need say little (the note by Benjamin Folkman gave an excellent summary and the Wikipedia entry on it here does reasonably well), but the net result was the only piano quintet since Schumann essentially invented it as a serious chamber music genre to surpass its progenitor, and arguably the greatest achievement in the form to date. The tragedy and heartbreak of the music is palpable in every section of the work, not least in the slow movement, which, in the major mode, is utterly Schubertian in its calm sadness. But you know all this already; we insert the reminder only as backdrop for our less-than-enthusiastic reaction to the performance it received.
Once again, this owes nothing whatever to technical defects in the playing; these are, after all, the crème-de-la-crème of musicians. Well, OK, Gerstein and the quartet weren’t completely together at the very beginning, but that problem didn’t recur, and Gerstein was exceptionally attentive to the other players—much more so than they to him. The playing was entirely smooth and polished, elegant even: we heard sounds from Eskin more beautiful than any we’ve heard in a long time, and Lowe’s tone was silken. But therein lay the problem. With the exception of Gerstein, who seemed to get it, and except for the coda to the last movement, where the ensemble seemed to find its mojo, this was a clear case of chamber music performed by orchestra musicians—note-perfect, well blended, cautious, risk-averse. The opening of the savage “scherzo,” for example, is soft. The strings duly performed it softly, but with smooth bowing betraying not a hint of raging tension, which is actually what that music is about. The slow movement, too, was largely bereft of the undertone of tragedy and longing it deserves. Bottom line: someone who has never heard this piece before would come away from this performance knowing that there’s something significant about it, but to find out exactly what, would have to listen to performances by someone else.