Running the gamut from one player to nine, Boston Symphony Chamber Players explored the boundaries of chamber music almost literally, in a well-balanced (and, let’s say it up front, well-executed) Mitteleuropean program at Jordan Hall on Sunday that included two Czechs, two Germans, one Hungarian.
The tile for the first of a trio of trios, Ervin Schulhoff’s Concertino for flute, viola and double bass (19250, is occasionally apt, as the flute which is bound to stand out in the timbral mix (it doubles piccolo for the entire second movement and parts of the fourth), often has melodic prominence against accompaniment figures in the others. When it doesn’t, one is particularly intrigued to hear busy Baroque-ish melodic patterns in the bass, though even in the expert hands of Edwin Barker, these lines can become indistinct. And interestingly, except for the finale, all the movements apply irregular meters: 7/4, 5/8, 7/4 (actually notated as 4/4 + 3/4). In the opening Andante con fuoco (!) Elizabeth Rowe’s flute sang fluid and limpid, while Steven Ansell’s viola and Barker deferred gracefully. The 1920s neoclassical sound here was not hard-edged, and produced effects sometimes reminiscent of Hindemith. The scherzo, in the Czech Furiant format, saw Barker at his most effective in some virtuosic passagework; in the trio he and Ansell furnished a charming drone against Rowe’s folk-like chirping. The slow movement is lyrical yet contrapuntal, while the 4/4 Rondino finale, mostly jolly and folk-like, produced fine contrasting textures.
Among the major Hungarian composers of the 20th (and now 21st) centuries, probably the least known is the almost-94-year-old György Kurtág. His output, which includes one opera (on Beckett’s Endgame) and some orchestral and concertante works, is frequently characterized by a Webern-like miniaturization, with occasional microtonal inflections. He has produced several ongoing sets of little pieces variously and in various combinations called Signs, Games and Messages, which therefore won’t be complete until he is. Violinist Haldan Martinson selected eight out of a current total of 29 sets for solo instruments to present by his lonesome (had the BSCP wanted to go all-out numerologist for this concert, he would have been told to choose one more). Not only are many of these little bites scored alternatively for different instruments, they also exist in multiple versions for the same instrument, so that Martinson could offer two versions of one of them, the Perpetuum mobile, in the first and seventh slots as a kind of recapitulation. The sampler, as in the series as a (so-far) whole, displays a resplendent diversity of styles, from craggy to folk-like, and equally of technical challenges, similar to Chopin or Paganini études. Martinson held us transfixed throughout, and in the concluding Antifóna Hirominak led from its mini-Tzigane opening to a conclusion bordering on silence. Magnificant.
The second Czech entry, though written 34 years after the first, also had roots in a neoclassical sensibility. Bohuslav Martinů’s completed his Nonet for winds and strings (technically his Nonet #2, but #1 was for different instruments) among his last compositions. The dedicatee, the Czech Nonet, is apparently the oldest continually operating chamber ensemble in the world, founded 1924 and still going strong (though like grandfather’s axe with fully replaced components). The nonet format, whose classic constitution (based on the 1813 work by Spohr) is wind quintet, violin, viola, cello and bass, like the other large chamber ensembles, grew out of the post-Napoleonic bourgeois European society’s desire for democratic access to musical performance. There haven’t been too many examples since the 1950s, but Martinů’s is a delight (you can hear the Czech Nonet’s recording of it here), as is that of Nino Rota from the same era. Martinson, Ansell, cellist Blaise Déjardin, Barker, Rowe, clarinetist William Hudgins, oboist John Ferrillo, hornist Richard Sebring and bassoonist Richard Svoboda, gave the opening Poco Allegro a winsome, bright, bouncy, yet exquisitely precise reading. The wistfully lyrical Andante was found Sebring bringing out his part’s mournful implications. This movement features, and the BSCP well elucidated, some splendid contrasts between duets and ensemble passages. The finale, an Allegretto, gave off moments of radiant afternoon sunshine and dappled shade, rich in antiphonal string and wind passages and dancing rhythms, before its soft landing.
After intermission the session settled into Romantic trios in A minor (maybe not the esthetically best way to organize a program, but practical in its use of performers), the first of which was the Trio “for piano, oboe and horn,” op. 188 (1886) of Carl Reinecke. Now probably best known as a teacher (of the likes of Albéniz, Bruch, Busoni, Chadwick, Grieg, Janáček, Sinding and Stanford) and conductor (he led the Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1860 to 1895), he wrote a famous flute sonata, Undine, and a well-regarded piano method, as well as four piano concertos and lots of piano music. The horn trio, as we will call it, illustrates his unquestioned capacity as a melodist: each movement has some gorgeous tunes, with appropriate memory hooks such as the dotted rhythm given the main theme of the first movement. Life can be cruel to a fine, highly talented artist who lives in the shadow of a genius—just ask Salieri. Reinecke and many others bore the cross of Brahms. The Reinecke horn trio takes Brahms’s as its starting point, and while it’s in a different key, and the themes are not obvious copies, the soft-spoken, gemächlich opening movement cannot be seen except in relation to its ground-breaking predecessor, despite the difference in treble instrument (which, incidentally, was a superb idea on Reinecke’s part—he was one of the few late Romantics who steadfastly continued to produce work for winds). What particularly distinguishes this movement, apart from some elegant chord changes, is that rhythmic nodule, and therein also lies its problem, which is that Reinecke just can’t get away from it. The question “what else can you show me?” goes unanswered. Meanwhile, at ground level, Ferrillo, Sebring and pianist Benjamin Pasternack oozed charm and finesse (though Sebring here seemed too out-front when Ferrillo wasn’t playing, scaling back appropriately when he was). The second movement scherzo presented plenty of bravura occasions for the winds, though, with rapid repeated notes dispatched with all the élan one would hope for from BSO players. In the soulful slow movement, one wished for a sudden burst of frenzy, or at least agitation, that never came. The Allegro non troppo finale again had some very nice tunes, but the allegro was a bit too non troppo for our taste; indeed everything about it was so tasteful that the high polish of the performance only increased the frustration. Ironically, Reinecke, having put the piano first in his instrument listing (like Mozart’s and Beethoven’s sonatas “for piano and violin”), created a piano part that was obviously elegant and idiomatic, but which never left the background. Pasternack’s indisputable prowess seemed wasted here.
Not so in the show-capper, the great Clarinet Trio, op. 114, of Brahms. Though critical consensus is that it’s not as great as the Clarinet Quintet (what could be?), Brahms was well pleased with it. Hudgins, Déjardin and Pasternack gave it a heroic reading in the outer movements, with the latter ripping into Brahms’s characteristically gnarly piano writing. It’s a piece that contains stand-out parts for each of the players, and these three were eager to show it off, without untoward showboating. The slow movement, which Eusebius Mandyczewski justly characterized as showing the instruments in love with each other, shows Brahms at his late, compact best, without a wasted note. The ensemble played it to perfection, to nearly the end, when—don’t you just hate it when this happens?—Déjardin broke a string; doink and thud. Fortunately, Pasternack was ready to vamp with potted broken-string war stories until Déjardin returned, and they picked up from just before they left off. The waltz-like intermezzo’s opening section could have benefited from a little more forward motion, from the surprisingly, and charmingly bumptious trio. The finale picked up the vigorous, charging demeanor of the first movement; tempi sometimes slackened but the tension never did, right up to the abrupt and forceful end.
Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.