In one of its annual evenings without a conductor, Boston Symphony Orchestra players and Richard Goode brought us Mozart: a delightful pair of serenades and a piano quartet, just the kind of gemütlichkeit that the rainy Tuesday evening needed.
The Serenade in D, K.239 (Serenata notturna) is great fun. The two violins in the masterful hands of Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, with Steven Ansell’s viola, formed a slightly exaggerated string quartet of principals with Ed Barker’s double bass replacing cello for good party fun. The trio in the second movement, and to some extent the whole piece, is carried through by the four soloists—to the point that one might start wondering just how good this would be as a real string quartet. But of course we would not want the opening Marcia without the tutti, the timpani, and most important without the wonderfully comical pizzicati. And in general the backdrop of the strings (about a third of the BSO sections) adds the essential dynamic contrasts: this is, after all, a background piece to a pageant. Rather than emotional conflict between individual and collective, it reflects one in the other to mutual satisfaction.
Plus why begrudge the inclusion of the extra forces? Surely the hosts of the fine gathering for which this Tafelmusik was provided could afford them. Speaking of fine gatherings, what would this music feel like if, instead of our twitching around in a poorly illuminated and crowded hall, we experienced it as background on a sunlit terrace with a glass of white burgundy in hand? Not being elitist here, just talking about historically informed listening. Oh, never mind.
Back to the intimate: in the Piano Quartet in E-flat K.493 Richard Goode was joined by Lowe, Ansell, and cellist Sato Knudsen (stepping in for an ailing Jules Eskin.) Lyrical and gorgeous string musicmaking meets piano eloquence—with just enough variation of tempi to give it wonderful, breathing movement. There was nothing here to diminish pleasure, except maybe the ever present digital context that forces one constantly to compare. Even as the witty passages of the piano float by, I catch my thoughts in a moral equivalent of googling one’s arguments on iPhone during a conversation. The highly recommended web preview of the concert on bso.org has put a bug in my ear: a short quotation from the previous incarnation of the same quartet, even with many of the same BSO players, but that time with Menahem Pressler doing his magic of long phrases at the piano. Goode’s was a fully satisfying performance, yet the digitally distracted mind imaged movement-long lines spun by the fingers of Magdeburg’s greatest gift to piano-trio and -quartet lovers.
The Gran Partita, or Serenade in B-flat Major K.361 for winds, is so long and full of pleasures that one can’t help putting it into the same category as some of the master’s string quintets—with Mozart’s focus in both cases on humoring a group of friends. Steven Ledbetter confirms the assumed presence of Anton Stadler’s clarinet, but then my namedropping cache quickly empties and I am left wondering if the wind players available to Mozart were as stellar as ours here and now. We suffer the hassle of big cities because that is where one finds a great orchestra, and a great orchestra is where one finds those expensive wind players. For me, a poignant wind solo is an ultimate reward of a symphony concert. I would argue that these days one can enjoy piano playing on the car stereo, a quartet in a small hall or even a living room, but nothing replaces a real hall, like Symphony or Concertgebouw, if you want to lose yourself in an oboe solo.
If you share any of this sensibility, then a performance of Grand Partita by BSO wind players captures you like a kid locked by mistake in a candy store. Even more than for the tuttis of the 13 players, one is grateful for the astonishing richness of these sub-ensembles: the occasional quartets played by clarinets with their basset-horn cousins, the remarkably burbling harmonious French horns and bassoons, and above all the heavenly dialogues between the gorgeous cantilena lines of John Ferrillo’s oboe and William Hudgins’s clarinet. And below all, we enjoyed the well-articulated foundation provided by Ed Barker—one visitor from what we usually see as the ruling majority of strings on this stage—this time perched on his seat looking down like an adult brought in to supervise a group of somewhat puzzling kids left to their own devices. Forget the sunlit terrace—lock me in these pews with coughing and shuffling listeners until those characters onstage get tired of defogging their instruments and wetting their reeds.