An exemplary and varied program of chamber music delighted a Shalin Liu Performance Center audience Thursday as the eminent pianist Emmanuel Ax joined members of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. The evening, which opened and closed with works by Schumann, also featured John Ferrillo in Mozart’s Quartet in F for Oboe and Strings, K.370 and Copland’s rarely heard Elegies for Violin and Viola, powerfully interpreted by Malcolm Lowe and Steven Ansell.
Ax took the stage with BSO principal horn James Sommerville in Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Piano, Op. 70. In an effort to maximize the work’s appeal (and sheet music sales) the composer alternatively arranged the work for violin, cello, viola, and oboe as the solo voice, but it is obviously most suited to the horn, with the hunting-call inspired allegro. The lyrical lines and beautiful high notes of the sumptuous Adagio was perfected balanced with the energetic and scherzotic allegro.
Copland’s Elegies for Violin and Viola, which later became the fourth movement of his orchestral Statements, was originally inspired by the unexpected suicide of the poet Hart Crane. Opening with a single open fifth, the work continually develops, as a cognizant organism searching for answers of its own identity. Along this journey are surprisingly lush harmonies, contrapuntal spinning, and an inevitable climax, after which the piece fades, not from exhaustion but rather having achieved its purpose. It leaves the listener with a harmony much more complex than that of the beginning, as if to say that answers seem simpler before the questions are raised.
Sometimes great works trace their origins to the loss of a composer’s close friend, and sometimes they spring into existence as the joyous celebration of a friendship found. Mozart wrote his oboe quartet for Friedrich Ramm, principal in the Mannheim court orchestra; both the composer’s affection for his friend and respect for his abilities as an artist are on full display in this good natured, yet virtuosic piece.
The first movement opens jauntily, but also fully explores the oboe’s warmth, depth, and variety of tone. When the strings attempt to plant serious seeds of canons and fugues in the development section, the oboe scampers in on their contrapuntal colloquia to lighten the mood, ending the movement (literally) on a high note. A slightly more pensive tone surrounds the second movement, with the oboe more an isolated commenter on the string action. Through the rhythms of the caffeinated finale the quartet moved as one body, in the best character of 18th-century chamber music. Ferrillo expertly executed the surprise cadenza thrown in near the end, and the group was warmly recalled to the stage twice by an appreciative audience.
While the same composer dominated the beginning and end of the concert, the moods and concepts of the bookends could not have been more different. The concluding work on the program, Schumann’s inimitable Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 47 is a visceral and complex work, an embodiment of the tortured genius as much as the Forth Symphony or Manfred Overture. Emmanuel Ax was welcomed back to the stage, as well as the quartet, consisting of Malcolm Lowe, Haldan Martinson, Steven Ansell, and Jules Eskin.
An explosive tempo propelled the wild opening movement with boundless energy; coupled with clarity in the contrapuntal entrances, the movement unfolded both organically and relentlessly. Lowe’s initial statement of the iconic funeral march theme set a tone which was gritty rather than pale, and Ax called forth a tone at once powerful and lyrical. While there might have been some disagreement on exactly how pregnant the pauses should be, all was forgiven by the flawless execution of the metrical modulations in the third movement, as well as its invigorating ending. The finale’s enigmatic idée fixe walked the line between noble and robotic, romantic and tragic, aimless yet resolute. The shifting characters of each of the many vignette-asides led inexorably to the monumental double fugue, which in turn served up a victorious finish.