The Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ assorted and delectable concert at Jordan Hall on Sunday afternoon began with Stravinsky’s Octet for winds (1922)—as lovable and glowing a piece as the chaotic 20th century has to offer. His memoirs tell of its origin in a dream, in which he eight musicians surrounded him: “I awoke from this little concert in a state of great delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose the Octuor, which I had had no thought of the day before.” The Octet crystallizes Stravinsky’s Russian neoclassicism into a sonata movement, a set of variations (including a march and a waltz) alternating with “ribbons of scales,” and a finale made up of duets, all the while punctuated by light-breathing staccato. Elizabeth Rowe (flute), Willam R. Hudgins (clarinet), Richard Svoboda and Suzanne Nelsen (bassoons), Thomas Siders and Benjamin Wright (trumpets), and Toby Oft and Stephen Lange (trombones), discreetly directed by Jorge Soto, carried off the performance with complete elegance and smoothness. My only trifling complaint: the 5/8 variation went too slowly. Stravinsky wrote of the trac (stage fright) he experienced in conducting the premiere; I felt exactly the same way conducting it for the first time in 1970. (2/8, 3/16, 2/8, 3/16, 3/8, 5/16 etc.)
Virgil Thomson’s Sonata da Chiesa (1926, revised 1973), like every other work of his I have heard, is really a curiosity, much of it a study in immobility and austerity in the manner of Satie (whom Thomson admired) but without Satie’s subtlety or charm. The first movement, a bitonal, parallel-moving Chorale, offered recitative-like statements for high solo viola alternating with plodding chords for four winds (clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone). The correlation with the “familiar style” of 19th-century American hymnody could be inferred from the title, but it went on too long. Tango, in a sort of D minor with low-register viola and accompanied by horn-trombone fourths, followed far more receptively, but it didn’t develop. The final Fugue showed some realistic and often imaginative counterpoint, with an angular and chromatic subject that made its way through each instrument, sometimes inverted; might I have heard a cancrizans as well? Steven Ansell (viola) and Richard Sebring (horn) joined Hudgins, Siders, and Oft in rescuing this work from the forgotten “Boulangerie” repertory; it needs to be heard more often.
Elliott Carter’s Sonata for flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord, a well-known major work, pays sparkling tribute to the outburst of American inspiration that followed World War II. Composed in 1952, it is almost exactly contemporary with his pathbreaking String Quartet No. 1. There are three movements, Risoluto, Lento, and Allegro. The instrumental combination makes for fine clarity, especially when the counterpoint of long lines in different metrical proportions — a Carter characteristic — really gets going. Sometimes the complex chordal texture made the individual pitches in the harpsichord hard to hear in a large hall, but this was offset by the readily audible melodic lines with mechanical regularity. Elizabeth Rowe, John Ferrillo (oboe), and Blaise Déjardin (cello) made strongly collegial engagement with harpsichordist Paolo Bordignon, who played a large instrument, well equipped with couplers and buff stop.
Edwin Barker, principal contrabass of the Boston Symphony, came on stage solus after the intermission to offer five of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Eight (short) Etudes, each which illustrates a particular style or technique of bowing or pizzicato. No. 3, Espressivo – Sotto voce, was a study in slow scales, up and down, with full expression from high register to low and back. No. 7, Pizzicato – Arco, demonstrated how effectively harmonics can sound on the bass, even as a high solo (one remembered the extraordinary solo bass harmonics at the beginning of Ravel’s l’Enfant et les sortilèges). In no. 4, Ricochet, the bouncing bow proved well able to project double and even triple stops. A special feature of this warm-blooded, expert performance was that the audience could see the bowing gestures, and the after-stroke, as visible and essential components of what actually sounded. One rarely encounters the contrabass as a solo instrument, and the sound is easy enough to recognize when one hears it; but there’s an essential difference in hearing it alone on a stage and hearing a contra section surrounded by a multitudinous orchestra.
Manuel de Falla’s Concerto for harpsichord, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello, composed for in 1923 for Wanda Landowska, concluded the afternoon. Haldan Martinson, violin, joined in for this cheerful occasion. Of the three movements, the second, Lento, is also marked giubiloso ed energico, but those terms could apply equally to the others as well. The brittle keyboard style shows the influence especially of Domenico Scarlatti, who resided in Spain for many years; what is no less notable is that a guitar style is nowhere to be found in this work. Steven Ledbetter’s well-written handout essays point to the influence of Stravinsky on the pungent diatonic-polytonal harmonic environment; indeed, Stravinsky himself admired the work and once even conducted a performance. All the players clearly enjoyed a good time. Paolo Bordignon, harpsichordist, returned for a well-deserved solo bow.
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.