The Boston Chamber Music Society’s commissioning program continued with the premiere of a Philippe Jalbert work which was bookended at Sanders on Sunday by old chestnuts from Schubert and Brahms.
Schubert’s ever-popular Shepherd on the Rock (Der Hirt auf dem Felsen) for soprano (Lisa Saffer), clarinet (Romie de Guise-Langlois) and piano (Max Levinson, the opener, was a surprise last-minute replacement for Mihae Lee, who was unable to perform according to the mysterious program insert. This song, dating from Schubert’s last year, is dear to clarinetists’ hearts, as it is the only Schubert work where the clarinet is the sole wind instrument. The text, intriguingly, is by not one but two poets, and from three poems: Wilhelm Müller, whose poems underlay both Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise, and Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, who was better known as a biographer than as a poet. The first four stanzas came from one Müller poem and the last from another, while two from Varnhagen were also part of Schubert’s concoction. The moods corresponded closely to the way in which Schubert structured many of his late works: a deceptive jollity at first, a dark anguish in the center, and a closing ray of hope. The music is through-composed, with only a hint of the first section to round out the third, which incorporates some operatic filigree to please the work’s commissioner, the opera singer Pauline Anna Milder-Hauptmann.
The ensemble was attentive to the dramatic aspects of the score, but suffered from a few issues. De Guise-Langlois was smooth and nimble in the wide-ranging clarinet part, with well-crafted phrasing and dynamics, and Levinson provided good support in the somewhat more mundane piano part (fortunately, he soon overcame, or at least abandoned, the twangy half-pedaling that was obviously not a happy fit with the Sanders piano), but we did not detect enough of the ethos of the piece in them. Saffer, on the other hand, used her body and especially her face to communicate the mercurial swings of the poets’ moods, and her projection and tone quality were good. Alas, her vibrato was excessive, which sometimes hid the underlying pitch and made her enunciation impenetrable.
The first half ended with Jalbert’s Street Antiphons, for “clarinet quartet,” otherwise known as the End of Time ensemble for Messiaen’s instrumentation of clarinet plus piano trio. Here, Levinson and de Guise-Langlois were joined by violinist Harumi Rhodes and cellist Clancy Newman. Now teaching at Rice in Houston, the composer, a New Hampshire native who grew up in Vermont and who therefore uses a hard “J” and sounded “t” in pronouncing his name, provided a bit of a lec-dem prelude to the performance, using the players to give away the principal themes. In three movements, Street Antiphons is intended, Jalbert said, to contrast secular and sacred music (the antiphon of the title is from “O Antiphon,” a Gregorian chant that forms the principal theme of the last movement). Like the “comedy” movement from Ives’s Fourth Symphony, Jalbert’s quartet occasionally interrupts worldly, vibrant, “groovy” riffs with moments of stasis and contemplation, and then vice versa. The middle movement is a “twofer,” beginning with slow, gelid string harmonics and tinkling piano accompanying a languid, lyrical melody in the clarinet, and then converts to a chugging “scherzo” featuring a switch to bass clarinet, which sustains long note values against the driving force of the other instruments. Its ending is impressive, featuring a supremely long piano decay. The finale is a set of variations on the chant, with episodes for clarinet alone (de Guise-Langlois sounded perfect to us, but only the composer knows for sure), for sliding and tremulous strings, for Arthur Berger-ish plink-plonk, and so on, getting more agitated as they go along until in the coda the “street groove” from the first movement returns just before the theme interrupts with its monastic insistence. Jalbert’s musical language is a stylish, updated, hip neo-tonalism, which makes it fairly easy to follow. His musical arguments are interesting without being terribly profound. The effective, together, and expressive ensemble, was, withal, fun to hear.
The piano trio from the Jalbert re-convened for the Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87. Brahms was, to quote Nicholas Meyer, “positively glutinous with self-approbation” over this trio, in telling his publisher that he had never sent him a better piece. So we’ll be up front about this and say that, while no mature Brahms work is less than first-rate music, this is not our favorite of his three trios. Still, it is formidable, and doesn’t need our approval to merit a place in the annals of world-beating masterpieces. What it does need, though, to get us to approve a performance, are passionate commitment—not the same thing as playing loud— and a deep understanding of the overall arc of the four movements.. In that respect, we found the BCMS effort less than fully satisfying. Newman’s solid and centered cello sound often sounded forced and pinched in the first movement, with its leaping dotted arpeggio motif. While Rhodes and Newman occasionally responded to the music with warmth, Levinson’s lush and densely packed sound overbalanced them, while all contributed to a sense of over-calculation, with many significant pauses that meaninglessly interrupted the musical lines.
Not that there weren’t good moments, too. The development section of the first movement was appropriately full-throated, and the slow variations of the second movement, with Hungarian flavoring, were well presented, though the “Scotch snap” motif could have been more accented. The strings were fleet and elfin in the mysterious outer sections of the scherzo (though Levinson again was too loud), while the trio was properly gemütlich, and the finale displayed lightness and intensity, in appropriate turns. Still, there was a spark missing. While these are all outstanding musicians, only a full-time ensemble develops compatibility over time; these performers lacked that luxury.