With so much talent, and the Beethoven chamber music to choose from, it might seem strange that I found the lightest of the four selections performed Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players to be the standout. But it was the Duo in E-flat (WoO 12) that most impressed the near-capacity audience and this writer with the virtuosity of the two players and the accessibility and appeal of the music.
Violist player Steven Ansell and double-bassist Edwin Barker sparkled as they raced through the composition that Beethoven, writing in 1796-’97, subtitled “With Two Obligato Eyeglasses.” Barker subdued the unwieldy double bass as if wrestling an alligator (he won hands-down). Beethoven wrote it for viola and cello but in an inspired gesture American composer-bassist Frank Proto transcribed the cello part.
The new instrumentation brought depth to the sonorities, reverberating in the lower register against Ansell’s viola part in ways the cello could never reach. Barker demonstrated nimble finger-and-bow work in the rapid higher passages that virtually turned the double bass back into a big cello. Serge Koussevitzky, the original double bass virtuoso, would have approved.
Beethoven’s whimsical title is still a subject of speculation among scholars, but his correspondence indicates he almost certainly wrote it for his good friend Nicholas Zmeskall von Domanovecz, who was myopic. The autograph score, not published until 1912 and then only in part, was written in oversized notation. The missing Allegro was discovered 40 years later.
The eight ensemble players rotated throughout the program as each selection required. The tight synchronization and attention to dynamics among these fine musicians have made them one of the most respected chamber ensembles sponsored by a symphony orchestra. (The group is composed of first-chair string and wind players of the BSO.)
The opener was the Trio in C-minor for violin, viola and cello Op. 9 No. 3. Malcolm Lowe played violin, Steven Ansell viola, and Adam Esbensen cello. Excellent program notes by Steven Ledbetter credited Beethoven with scoring that ranged “from delicate chamber effects to a nearly orchestral sonority.”
Then followed the heaviest piece, the Quintet in E-flat for piano and winds, Op. 16. Acclaimed pianist Garrick Ohlsson brought his easy command of the keyboard to this group, leading the way through a well-blended performance. Beethoven’s debt and homage to Mozart recur again and again. Bassoonist Richard Svoboda, at home with the flu, was replaced by Rick Ranti, assistant principal.
The program closed with the Trio in E-flat for piano, violin and cello, Op. 70 No. 2. Often cited as one of Beethoven’s most original creations, it emerged during the same fertile period of the Fifth and Sixth symphonies (1808-’09). Program notes, again by Ledbetter, rightly point out that the finale’s “understated jubilation” is “one of Beethoven’s most remarkable achievements.”