The Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ offering at Jordan Hall Sunday encompassed a bewildering variety in approach and style; standard rep only reared its head in a Brahms quartet. Everything else came from the 20th century. The Stravinsky Octet for Winds gave the players scope to serve up a uniformly beautiful tonal pallete, notwithstanding the oddness of the instrumentation of flute, clarinet, and pairs of bassoons, trumpets and trombones, and the unusual couplings that resulted. While the cushiony moments at the opening and closing sounded especially lush, the faster, dryer moments strode past a bit dully; the whole felt unaccountably humorless. Stravinsky famously, and probably ironically, protested that this octet was “a musical object” and not “emotive;” perhaps the Players took him at his word. One hungered a bit for the more piquant, even rough, sounds expected in early 1920s France, where and when Stravinsky wrote and debuted it. Am I the only one who heard the sensuous syncopations at the very end of the piece and wondered if Damien Chazelle had stolen them outright for La La Land?
A different sensuousness came on display in Mieczysław Weinberg’s six-movement Sonata for Solo Double Bass, performed with astonishing musicality and skill by the remarkable Edwin Barker. Weinberg (1919-1996) was a Polish Jew who escaped the Holocaust by emigrating to the Soviet Union. He was a colleague of Shostakovich’s, and the language of the Sonata can be roughly compared to that of the more famous composer, inasmuch as it is broadly tonal but shot through with distinctive personality. Weinberg’s writing makes full use of the instrument, avoiding neither the intonationally perilous extreme high range nor the potentially woolly and under-articulated deep bass. Weinberg used that exceptional sound to evoke the Bach solo string works. As little precedent had existed for a solo sonata for double bass, this work has an experimental quality. The first three movements capture the attention effortlessly: the first is an Adagio prelude consisting of a wandering melody bookended by powerful arpeggios; the second, a dizzying scherzo; the third a savage dance. The second half is rather pallid in comparison: a brief and awkward waltz; a stentorian soliloquy that never fully engages the attention; and a finale filled with technical fireworks and difficulties that never quite sets up. If you have not heard Barker play solo double bass, I doubt you know just how expressive, lithe, and exciting the instrument can be; he dispatched the challenges of the work with almost no effort save the occasional emergency portamento. Even when the composer’s inspiration flagged, Barker engaged us.
Gubaidulina’s Garden of Joy and Sorrow for flute, viola and harp (played by Elizabeth Rowe, Steven Ansell and Jessica Zhou, respectively) unfolds in a damp and dark place, filled with songs and sounds both mournful and lurid. It is at once dense and spare: one hears the same flute melody, the same viola harmonics, over and over again, and the same sense of quiet anxiety never dissipates. It also poses constant complications, and the elusive work’s logic never entirely reveals itself over its nearly 20 minutes. Having been written just after the composer’s masterwork, Offertorium, it sounds almost empty in comparison, but it still fitfully engages the intellect. Happily all in, the players gave forth enough aestheticism to occupy us when the music threatened to stall.
Brahms’s Quartet in C Minor Op. 60 provided the requisite red meat to close the otherwise austere afternoon. Stately, clear, muscular, and unsentimental, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes dominated throughout, but not through excessive power; only rarely did he cover the strings (Malcom Lowe, violin; Ansell, viola; Adam Esbensen, cello), but the piano spoke with the authoritative voice as the strings made a beautiful blended sound. Individually, the violin was a bit fussy and the cello a little over-demonstrative, compared to the keyboard. It was not the warmest performance—even the exquisitely longing slow movement kept its distance—but the finale built up energy to land its final bars with commanding enthusiasm and rouse the somewhat sleepy audience to an extended ovation.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.