One of the finest programs of the year featured consummate performances of Dvořák, Kurtág, Mozart, and Gershwin by the Boston Artists Ensemble. What could even be more surprising and satisfying than such a polychromatic, polyculture of chamber music-making? The strong turnout on a pristine Sunday afternoon acknowledged such.
And there could not have been a better venue than St. Paul’s Church in Brookline for this outing, where sound mattered much as in the whispered glissandos in Kurtág or the luminosity in Mozart. Violist Lila Brown’s mention of Kurtág’s once telling her about producing a certain sound, “more, more, more…” that pregnant pause, then, “more…” suggests the exceptional degree of artistry to which these musicians, all associated with the Boston Symphony or other like peer organizations, have reached.
St. Paul’s also invited in a rare intimacy with these outstanding musicians.
Together, BAE violinists Tatiana Dimitriades and Sharan Leventhal, cellist Jonathan Miller, and Vytas Baksys on harmonium created a compelling rustic artistry throughout the Bagatelles, Op. 47 by Czech composer, Antonin Dvořák. In the opening Allegretto scherzando, sunlit dancing from the strings gave way to a nod to nostalgia from an otherwise quietly humming harmonium.
The ever incessant short-long rhythmic motive of the Tempo di minuet became infectious in these players’ hands, while the intervening and contrasting Grazioso section drew a rainbow-shaped melody, which the violins outlined with delightful simplicity. In the fourth Bagatelle, ears were drawn to a canon between the first violin and cello where Dimitriades and Miller became a close sister and brother, inflecting then reflecting the imitative play. Leventhal joined for a close-knit family of three with the harmonium of Baksys droning on in fatherly fashion.
BAE realized the true folkish esprit in the tuneful couplets of the concluding Poco allegro. Baksys kept the Paris-made Mustel harmonium in tow by a mostly richly melding with the strings. When Dvořák writes an opening or window for the instrument, Baksys evinced a magical reedy nasality in the vernacular.
Signs, Games, and Messages for String Trio by the Hungarian composer György Kurtág comprise compact miniatures lasting circa 10 minutes. It was quite clever of Miller and colleagues to tell a little about each one—yes, they kept their word by talking some 10 minutes—and then to play each one. After that they would play all five in sequence. So, all in all, the portion of the program ran a standard 30 minutes.
Hearing them a second time made all the difference. Silence and slowness provided an environment where Leventhal, Lila Brown, viola, and Miller exposed the minutest sonics, sometimes naturally, other times using practice mutes. BAE transmitted haunting transfigurations of early Renaissance, maybe Ockeghem, maybe Josquin, then of an almost lost Bach, his style symbolized by a Baroque-like motoric pattern (broken only by a momentary nod to Messiaen, one of Kurtág’s teachers).
Then off to Vienna with Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581.
Clarinetist Thomas Martin, along with Leventhal, Dimitriades, Brown, and Miller showered magnificence everywhere. The second movement, Larghetto, found an incomparable tone of heavenliness, Martin’s clarinet serenely circling the remarkably soft, angelic voice of the strings.
Sumptuous blend could be another way of praising BAE’s Mozart. So, too, could sustainability, in their ability to maintain an elevated vision yet always with the spirit of human endeavor, which places BAE’s performance of the quintet at the top of my list.
I could not believe my ears upon hearing BAE’s encore by George Gershwin, i a stellar arrangement of his bluesy Prelude for Piano. Thomas Martin took the lead, delivering the moody line with an incredible vibrato, maybe a miniaturized Sydney Bechet kind-a-one. When Leventhal got the line, she continued with refinement deluxe, bending that the blues note temptingly. Miller’s chance came at the bridge, playing it straight until the turnaround, which he caressed with loving care. This Gershwin will remain unforgettable.