An ensemble with a prestigious name, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS), came to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to perform in the Sunday Concert Series in the four-level-surround listening space of the still new Calderwood Hall. “CMS presents chamber music of every instrumentation, style, and historical period in its extensive concert season in New York, its national tours, its many recordings and national radio broadcasts, its broad commissioning program, and its multi-faceted educational programs.”
Even given such prestige, the woodwind quintet instrumentation is not the most popular draw; yet, this concert was sold out. And given still another weekend of snowfall scheduled for the Boston area, it was gratifying to see a strong showing. I gather that last week’s conditions allowed 50 percent attendance, and the week before, with the blizzard, that concert had to be cancelled.
To be so close to the action as I was in the this unusual performing environment seemed especially right for wind music, some of it with piano. I was also struck by how Gardner concert-goers walked right across the performing area, past the piano in the middle of the open quadrangle. “Distance” in art is a theme of the aesthetician, a matter that I thought about. CMS’s instrumentation—never mind programming —popular in university and conservatory settings, is certainly rare in concert or recital.
Opening this recital with France’s Francis Poulenc witty and satirical music, the definition of high-powered highbrow high-jinx was underway with the declarative a-minor chordal progression out of tradition and a bit out of whack. Next, followed a sizzling recitative on the bassoon—trill and all. And when the oboe entered, reaching for a high, exquisite D flat, the Trio for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano from 1926 leapt into the room with fun-loving fierceness. On the ninth page of the first movement came that Poulenc stamp of beautiful swoons always with just enough of the sophisticate. The whole romp was that quick eye-blinking satire that keeps you on your toes, which pianist Gilles Vonsattel, oboist Stephen Taylor, and bassoonist Peter Kolkay knew to the smallest tantalizing nuances. I wondered if Poulenc might have been quite knocked out by this absolutely classical caper of a performance. My sense was that everyone in the room loved the piece and the playing.
From there on, for one hour and a half, it was splendiferous synchronization. La cheminée du roi René of Milhaud took to that pure—or impure as it might seem with the hugely variegate timbres—woodwind quintet. Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, clarinetist David Shifrin, and William Purvis on horn completed the ensemble. The dappled textures of Milhaud sprung into Aix-en-Provence expression, sunny and southerly France. The fourth movement, La Maousinglade, is, perhaps, the best of the seven. There being informative bios, there were no notes on the pieces. The score tells us that this title is “the name of a section in the country of Aix-en-Provence in which Darius Milhaud’s house is situated, literally it means ‘badly arranged.” CMS breathed the composer’s fetching harmonies into a musical life of an innocent time.
Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet unfolded in exacting yet natural motion, CMS creating the sharpest of sonorities and whirlwinds of sounds to the little puff of the bassoon’s ending note. There was more to enjoy with the performers’ further reducing the “distance” that I spoke of earlier. Before the Ligeti, the clarinetist broke silence saying “This is what we would be doing backstage,” with the oboist adding, “It’s just condensation.”
With CMS, Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat major for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, and Piano, K. 452 stood firm on real musical grounds, masterful balances and interplay in evidence. Overall, the horn induced a bit of apprehension through some insecurity. Piano scale work and trills in the Mozart became frozen, predictable.
Something that all six could play, Jean Françaix’s The Old Boyfriend (a bar in Paris) was their encore, wrapping up an afternoon of refineries that always took second fiddle to a natural, unfettered kind of playing more and more uncommon in today’s Internet-speed performances.
There was much fun to be had; saving the seriousness for another day.