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BSCP Honors Harbison

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Amanda Forsythe (Hilary Scott photo)

In celebration of John Harbison’s 80th-birthday year, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players offered a half-century spectrum of his chamber music at Jordan Hall on Sunday, topping off the afternoon with a Bach cantata in honor of Harbison’s lifelong dedication to that repertory.

Harbison’s Duo for flute and piano, in five movements, represented the earliest phase of his maturity. Composed in 1961, it demonstrated his characteristic paratonal harmony — well-established signposts of strong tonality blurred with chromaticism that sometimes becomes dense but only seldom atonally predominant. One could hear some echoes of the smooth linear counterpoint of Walter Piston — Harbison’s then-most-recent teacher — with equal-length phrases and long lines. There was a nice right-hand drip ostinato in the second movement, “Lullaby,” while the left hand walked along below; in the fourth movement, “Dithyramb,” bursts of ultra-pianissimo staccato notes, delicately shaped by flutist Elizabeth Rowe, were haunting. The last movement, enigmatically titled “Sonata and Coda,” would have fit in especially well with Poulenc’s flute sonata (A minor) or Prokofiev’s (D major); flutists, take note.

Deep Dances for cello and contrabass, both the shortest and the most recent of the works on the program begins with “Pretty Low,” a dialogue of bunched growls alternating with expressive soli, first for the bass and ending for the cello. One heard a goodly amount of paired textures in the three movements, appropriate to the duo of Emanuel Feldman and Pascale Delache-Feldman, who premiered the work in 2006. Blaise Déjardin and Edwin Barker played warmly and with obvious enjoyment.

Harbison’s Piano Quintet of 1981, in five movements, adds a major monument to the relatively slender 20th-century repertory for this genre. There will be the usual comparisons with Shostakovich’s and Piston’s examples, but this one is entirely different. The “Overture” begins with a sighing texture for the quartet; this comes back in the culminating fifth movement, “Elegia,” which is dominated by long-sustained strings surmounted by high-register piano melody. The second movement, “Capriccio,” and fourth, “Burletta,” both showed a warm whimsicality, with a chorale-like ending for the “Capriccio”; in the “Burletta” the antiphony of major thirds tossed back and forth between registers made me wonder whether the composer had been influenced by Debussy’s “Les tierces alternées.” The “Elegia” died away gradually and eloquently on the solo viola’s open-E harmonic. One couldn’t ask for a more attentive or better-focused performance of so many different moods than we got from Haldan Martinson and Alexander Velinzon, violins; Steven Ansell, viola; Blaise Déjardin, cello; and Gilbert Kalish, piano, who also played in the Duo.

Back in school, discussing problems of orchestration, we often said that the wind quintet posed the most compositional difficulties of all instrumental genres. Thanks to sterling examples by Reicha and others, I no longer believe this, and it’s obvious that Harbison, in his Quintet of 1979 (written for Emmanuel Wind Quintet to program with Schoenberg’s example), had no difficulties at all in combining, harmonically and contrapuntally, five instruments totally different in timbre but offering welcome limitations of choice. The “Intrada” began with a close texture surmounted by a prominent high horn, soon yielding to a unison melody for flute, oboe, and clarinet, then adding a bassoon to the unison, and finally the horn for a cinque — unwieldy perhaps, but gratifyingly intense; the movement concentrated on chordal textures and timbral changes.  The second movement, “Intermezzo” (it is significant that both the Duo and the Quintet also include movements with this title), was a barcarolle in 5/8 meter. The third movement, “Romanza,” alternated expressivity with slow waltz texture that seemed almost parodistic; the “Scherzo” had a bouncy staccato with octave skips, contrasting with the mournful trio section in the middle. And everyone had a good time in the marchlike, dotted-rhythm Finale.

Elizabeth Rowe, flute; John Ferrillo, oboe; James Sommerville, horn; Richard Svoboda, bassoon; William R. Hudgins, clarinet;…and Harbison makes a sextet (Hilary Scott photo)

The quintet team heard earlier mobilized once more for the Bach’s Cantata No. 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, with Gilbert Kalish moving over to the harpsichord; Thomas Rolfs added to their number, playing a Bach trumpet. This virtuoso cantata is a favorite with every audience. Soprano Amanda Forsythe delivered a vocal sound that can be described as both pure and magnificent, and she sang with vigor, clarity and joy. I only wish that she could have been less manneristic in her dynamics: from ff in one measure to quasi niente in the next, the continuity of her melodic line often felt interrupted. It’s not a matter of breathing, but of style. I don’t expect Forsythe to sound like Sieglinde, but I do want to hear all the notes that Bach wrote. A bow, too, to Blaise Déjardin for his fine obbligato cello. The chorale, “Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren,” has more than a passing resemblance to Louis Bourgeois’s “Old Hundredth” from the Genevan Psalter of 1551 — a Calvinist melody wandering into Lutheran use through many changes. In this cantata, it leads directly into the concluding Alleluia.

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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  1. Mark writes: “Harbison’s Piano Quintet of 1981, in five movements, adds a major monument to the relatively slender 20th-century repertory for this genre.” Relative to what I don’t know, but a quick search on Earsense produced a list of nearly 500 works for piano quintet from 1901 to 1999 inclusive, with nearly all the major composers of the period represented. The vast majority of these were pieces entitled “piano quintet,” so we’re not talking about bits and scraps. So if the Harbison quintet is a big fish, then hats off because it’s a big fish in a pretty big pond.

    Comment by Vance Koven — January 15, 2019 at 10:28 am

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