Boston Artists Ensemble, the brainchild of cellist and artistic director Jonathan Miller, opened its season at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline Sunday with Mozart, Beethoven, and Janáček. Although its contingents vary from concert to concert, one can safely expect good music played very well. Miller, a retired 43-year member of the BSO, describes his colleagues as “distinguished artists who share an intense devotion to chamber music, a profound insight into its meaning and the exquisite technique required to reveal it to the audience.” I have followed this ensemble from its beginnings about 35 years ago when Miller got a residency for a quartet to play on WGBH. (My husband was the violist). Miller has managed to find residencies and steady places to perform in Newton and Brookline, and in Salem on Friday nights, and he has a deservedly devoted following.
The appearance of the Boston Symphony’s phenomenal John Ferillo, the featured player in Mozart’s charming Quartet for Oboe and Strings in F, K. 370 lent the event a special appeal. One of the greatest living oboists (he played at the Metropolitan Opera for 15 years before joining the BSO in 2001 and recently became a faculty member at Juilliard), Ferillo sounded thrilling and ravishing in the warm acoustic of the sanctuary. He introduced this “work of great genius… sweet, sweet, sweet.” The violinist Peter Zazofsky played especially beautifully in this as well. Violist Lila Brown and cellist Jonathan Miller appeared in all three works.
The performance of Beethoven’s String Trio in D Major, Op. 9, No. 2, the second of its set, did not succeed in convincing us that the work was anything but the least of Beethoven’s three in the genre.
The strings finally sounded warmed up in Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata,” achieving tight ensemble and excellent intonation was excellent; each short movement’s abrupt ending (the piece is only 17 minutes long) left me almost breathless and on the edge of my seat. Longtime former colleagues in the Muir Quartet, first violin Bayla Keyes second violin Peter Zazovsky played with authority, and all sounded deeply engaged in the drama. Janáček wrote only two quartets—both masterworks. This unique Kreutzer-named piece is the actually third with this designation, following Beethoven’s Kreuzer Sonata, the inspiration for Tolstoy’s famed novella ‘Kreutzer Sonata.’ Janáček deploys his customary creative use of motifs, tempi, rhythms to create a sense of conflict and tragedy, using turbulent frenzied speech-like dialogue (for which he is well-known), mirroring all of the neuroticism and violence of the novella’s protagonist, memorably and terrifyingly, as a suitably upsetting midrash (commentary) on the novella.
Written in one week in November 1923, this example is actually Janáček’s third attempt on the Tolstoy. He lost or discarded his real first quartet (on this theme), which he composed during an unhappy time as a student in Vienna, in 1880. He also produced a piano trio about Tolstoy’s story in 1908-9, of which only a page of fragments remains.
His long, unhappy marriage, the death of his beloved daughter, and an obsessive affair of the heart with the married, 40-year-younger Kamila Stösslová, merit books of their own. Janáček saw the Tolstoy as a sordid tale as a portrayal of an unhappy, tortured beaten woman killed by her jealous husband. The drama, involving conjugal misery, jealousy, and death, morbidly appealed to Janáček; his string writing deftly portrays despair and ferocity.
The Bohemian Quartet, at whose suggestion Janáček wrote it, debuted the first quartet in 1924. The ensemble’s famous second violinist, composer Josef Suk (Dvořák’s son in law), explained it as the voice of humanity’s conscience…a moral protest against men’s despotic attitude to woman.
Biographer Jaroslav Vogel notes:
The First Quartet is the last link in a spiritual chain which began in 1907 with the intended opera Anna Karenina and included the Trio (fragments)and, in particular, (the opera) Katya Kabanova of which the first quartet is a chamber music counterpart. The heroine of all of these works is an unhappily married woman who, in her longing for happiness, throws herself into the arms of an unworthy lover and dies tragically. Four days after completing this quartet, the composer began work on his opera in which the heroine is a strong-minded, domineering woman. “Life, I want life!” He is reported to have exclaimed.
Permit me another of my many rants about musicians speaking from the stage, especially at length. Is this an attempt to befriend or more deeply engage the audience? Few musicians possess this basic skill of being engaging, audible and relevant. We really didn’t need to hear from each of the quartet’s members just because they’d chosen a short work. Perhaps I am in the minority in wanting to hear just the music, which, in this case, was quite wonderful.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.