Refreshing it was to be taken into the 20th century with music of Messiaen, Britten, and others in a program presented by the Walden Chamber Players on Sunday. Quartet for the End of Time, heard from time to time in Boston, and Lachrymae, Reflections on a song of Dowland, rarely performed in our cultural hub, were the special attractions. The former, bursting with birdcalls and Catholicism, found vibrant musical life at Wilson Chapel on the campus of the Andover Newton Theological School. The latter, concise variants for piano and the less often heard viola, transported via the stellar playing of Jonathan Bass and Christof Huebner.
The Newton Centre venue is inviting, its intimacy brings every listener into close contact with the musicians, its large glass windows allowing the listener to peer outside. A drawback, the Yamaha grand piano (a seven-footer?) needs to be voiced, as the attack of each note is noticeably hard edged. Second, the piano does not hold up well with big sounding works such as the Messiaen. However, it must be said that Bass did all he could to recreate the Frenchman’s Stalag 8A composition packed with piano clusters and colors in a broad range of dynamics.
Further still, Lachrymae did not suffer one iota under the Yamaha. With Bass and Huebner, Britten’s Reflections, or variations on Dowland’s “If My Complaints,” became a sky-scape of brilliant bodies. Huebner’s viola evinced an array of highly attractive tonal hues coupled with a display of articulation that showed an incredible depth of understanding. And Bass was right there with him in this, an astonishingly elegant and affecting iteration.
Curiously, Walden’s concert booklet offered no translations of the French titles or notes on the pieces performed, though various players did introduce each of the pieces beforehand.
Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941) took up the first half of the program with its eight movements. Jan Halloran’s clarinet soloing in Abyss of the Birds seized attention by controlling both long crescendos coming out of silence and taut bursts of birdsong.
Praise to the Eternity of Jesus is given to the cello over a near motionless chordal accompaniment from the piano. Cellist Ashima Scripp understands Messiaen’s inimitable concept of what is motion and what is stationary. Her cello sang his long melody with a fetching near-nasal tone that expressed an honest humility and deep reverence.
Praise to the Immortality of Jesus bent heavenward at the hands of violinist Irina Muresanu, especially so during the middle of the movement. At times, though, her bow introduced a slight roughness to Messiaen’s smooth and slowly spiraling line.
Despite the Yamaha, pianist Bass also demonstrated a deep empathy for Messiaen. The other movements for ensemble rang out with a joie de vivre, if a bit contained, the performers projecting a sense, though slight, of carefulness.
Violinist Omar Chen Guey joined the Walden Chamber Players for two pieces: the first, Pärt’s Fratres arranged as a string quartet does not sustain interest, it cries out for timbral elucidation. With the piano substituting for the saxophone in The Creation of the World (1923) by Darius Milhaud, along with the winds and percussion missing, most of the character, in fact, the very heart of this ’20s jazz piece was taken out. At one point, the string quartet screeched through a densely contrapuntal passage.
Along with the Walden’s music-making, artwork was also on display from artists of the Newton Art Association. It was announced that Walden’s next season will be extended. That is good news.