in: Reviews

January 22, 2017

A French Wind Blew

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Eight BSO principal wind and string players joined three BSO colleagues and pianist Randall Hodgkinson this afternoon at Jordan Hall in French chamber works by Taffanel, Saint-Saëns, Tanguy and Françaix dedicated to the memory of long-time BSO principal cellist Jules Eskin, a founding member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. To honor him, Malcolm Lowe and Steven Ansell preceded the formal program with the Andante from Mozart’s K. 423 Duo for Violin and Viola, beautifully evoking Eskin’s spiritual presence and creating a soft lullaby to wish him a peaceful eternal rest.

To borrow a line from Mel Brooks, Paul Taffanel is famous to those who have heard of him. Known as the founder of the French School of flute playing, he arrived on the scene shortly after the improved Boehm flute was developed; he also modernized the French conservatory curriculum and led the early music revival throughout Europe. His Wind Quintet in G Minor received new life and substance in the nuanced performance given by Elizabeth Rowe (flute), William Hudgins (clarinet), Richard Sebring (horn) Richard Svoboda (bassoon) and John Ferrillo (clarinet). They shaped the opening Allegro con moto into a spirited, assertive, courtly dance through an elegant superposition of timbres and concluded in a mysteriously poised cadence. The ensuing Andante opened with a haunting, noble horn and saw the flute soar in a great expressive aria. The third and final movement featured a carefully-crafted tarantella in which the flute rose effortlessly above gravity while the oboe and clarinet used strong accents to attempt upward motion, but remaining anchored like the horn and the bassoon in earthly weight, so that the whole movement felt like a dialogue of soul and body, emphasizing the unity of the quintet and the mutual interdependence of the five instruments.

For years Camille Saint-Saëns resisted requests from Émile Michel Hyacinthe Lemoine, a mathematician at the École Polytechnique and founder of their chamber society La Trompette, for a work for trumpet with strings and piano. He eventually wrote the short Préambule, followed later by the remaining three movements, the complete version being premiered in 1880. As with his younger colleague Taffanel, Saint-Saëns took inspiration from Baroque models in putting this suite together. Here, the Septet in E-flat Major, Opus 65, as interpreted by Randall Hodgkinson (piano), Thomas Rolfs (trumpet), Malcolm Lowe (violin), Haldan Martinson (violin), Steven Ansell (viola), Mihah Jojatu (cello) and Edwin Barker (double bass), was marked by beautiful tone color and exquisite integration. In the Preamble, masculine and feminine elements constantly shifted but continually balanced, creating motion and poise, as in a fountain. The second movement Menuet summoned the dignity of Rameau but enriched and contested by a magical and shimmering piano. The heart of the piece, Intermede, originally conceived as a funeral march, was beautifully filled by a sorrowful but stoical piano. In the final movement, the piano issued forth with imagination and renewal like a font of gushing water, while the trumpet extolled the valor and competence of the polytechniciens (they can uncork a bottle of Champagne with their saber), gathering momentum to end with panache.

Eric Tanguy (b. 1968) is a prolific composer working in every major classical genre. Invited to Tanglewood by Dutilleux in 1995, he has had a close connection to the BSO for a number of years. The work entitled Afterwards, for flute and piano—Elizabeth Rowe and Randall Hodgkinson in this performance—was written in 2012. As though taking Taffanel’s new science of the flute to new heights, Rowe gave us nothing less than Krishna’s flute—a spiritual calling out to creation, piercing the soul with intimations of realms beyond realms. Was she playing a flute of pure gold? Her playing cast spells on us all, as if she were presiding over rituals that keep the cosmos in its orbits and the earth thick with forests. Tanguy’s piece is mythical.

Malcom Lowe and Steven Ansul honor Jules Eskin (Hilary Scott photo)

Jean Françaix was a talented composer and pianist, a traditionalist who interpreted the essence of French music to lie in the witty and the light-hearted, aiming to compose music that brings pleasure.  His comic work Á huit was composed in 1972 for Willi Boskovsky and the Vienna Octet. Our Boston Symphony Chamber Players brought out the underlying seriousness and maturity of Francaix’s Octet for winds and strings. The opening movement was given a sophisticated boulevardier character, urban and disturbing, tinged with elements of Shostakovich. The circus-music of the Scherzo was enhanced with glitter and illusionism, capturing the falsity of spectacle and pointing to nihilism. The Andante, with its movie-score character, recalled an elaborately-wrapped box with nothing in it—the very essence of modern marketing. The final movement Valse, full of grimacing discord, brought to mind the band that played a waltz as the Titanic sank …  or an eerie, empty Vienna, where everyone who mattered was dead (like Schubert, to whom the Octet was dedicated). Une musique qui fait plaisir? A French wind blows, and a gentle good humor, enamored of decorum but full of self-irony, tinged with spiritual yearning and full of scars, with eyes too-wide-open, fills the garden.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

2 Comments

  1. How come every picture we see of BSCP players features grimaces?

    Comment by denovo2 — January 25, 2017 at 4:55 pm

  2. Somewhere Saint-Saëns is quoted as having said,”It would be easier to write a concerto for twenty-five guitars than for that combination!” But his Septet with trumpet is entirely successful and delightful, despite the unorthodox ensemble.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — January 26, 2017 at 9:22 am

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