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Chamber Players Keep Good Company


Franz Berwald

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players, comprising several BSO first chairs, are clearly among the best instrumentalists our city welcomes; they certainly had a good time in the company of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet on a happy Sunday afternoon in Jordan Hall.

It’s always a delight to discover a Haydn piano trio. The familiar two thick C. F. Peters volumes of 22 Haydn trios lack the D Major Trio, no. 16, which we heard yesterday. This one has a bright Allegro first movement, with many characteristic flashes of Haydn wit, including a second theme in the dominant minor mode. The Andantino slow movement continues some of that unexpected major-minor dialogue, within the framework of repeated 2/4 eight-bar phrases that almost sound as though there will be a set of variations to follow but wind up returning to an ornamented restatement. The slow movement connects directly with the Vivace finale, and here, as in the first movement, I heard some interesting thematic similarities to Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos, K. 448; that kind of D major music was in the air, so to speak. (No, Haydn and Mozart didn’t steal from each other; they were too busy writing new music.) The piano, as is usual with Haydn’s trios (and Mozart’s early violin sonatas, for that matter), give most of the forward material to the keyboard, with the flute (or violin) and cello more often in a doubling role than asserting their own independence. But these players made the entire enterprise a comfortable experience. Elizabeth Rowe, flute, and Sato Knudsen, cello, formed a fine threesome with Thibaudet, who was clear, direct, and never overpowering.

The major revelation, at least some, then followed: the Grand Septet by Franz Berwald, whose music I have been promoting for more than half a century. Berwald (1796-1868), a Swede, is the finest Scandinavian composer before Grieg, and his importance is at least belatedly being recognized in the ongoing (since 1966) appearance of a critical edition of his complete works. I took a lot of ribbing in graduate school for my enthusiasm for Berwald’s Sinfonie singulière (1845), but except for Schumann’s C major, you won’t find any symphony composed at that time by anyone that’s as finely wrought or as original a work. Berwald’s Grand Septet, for the same combination as Beethoven’s (clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, and bass), is an earlier work, from 1828, and it breathes the same lyrical air as Schubert’s Octet from four years earlier. Like the “Singular Symphony,” it has a slow movement divided in two, with a Scherzo inserted between; you find this split personality later in the century, in pieces such as Lalo’s Cello Concerto or Brahms’s D minor Violin Sonata. Berwald’s style has some characteristics, including a sense of imaginative modulation, persistent rhythms, sudden accents, and short grace-notes that some might consider eccentricities; but none of these impede what amounts to a strong and consistent personal idiom that is as successful as it is refreshing. The audience listened and applauded more politely than enthusiastically, and I suspect this was because the music was so unfamiliar to most of those who heard it; for me, it was a special pleasure to hear for the first time a live performance of an excellent chamber piece I’ve known in recordings for 45 years.  It was obvious that the players liked it, too: William R. Hudgins, clarinet; Richard Svoboda, bassoon; James Sommerville, horn; Malcolm Lowe, violin; Steven Anselviola; Sato Knudsen, cello; and Edwin Barker, contrabass.

Elizabeth Rowe, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Sato Knudesen (Hilary Scott photo)

After the intermission, Jean-Yves Thibaudet returned with a string quartet to give a spirited rendition of Dvořák’s big beloved Piano Quintet in A major. There’s no doubt that its thick textures and durations can be ponderous: the first and second movements are each 14 minutes long, but this unseemly length is counterbalanced by the five-minute Scherzo and the seven-minute Finale. Many listeners likely consider the Dumka slow movement, with its mournful melody turning and returning, to be the high point of the work. The Scherzo is subtitled Furiant; Dvořák is the only composer I know of who uses this title (also in his Sixth Symphony), but in this quintet it is much more boisterous than furious, and it serves as an admirable prelude to the jigging rondo Finale. Expert strings Malcolm Lowe and Steven Ansell once again, plus Haldan Martinson, second violin, and Mihail Jojatu, cello did enthusiastic and triumphant battle with the piano. Cheers ensued from this writer and the crowd..

A merely half-full Jordan Hall offered something of a reassurance, inasmuch as a block away at Symphony Hall, Benjamin Zander was directing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and several other events were going on at the same time. Those who honor classical music in Boston usually have good choices to make even when they are difficult. Everybody liked this one.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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