Following its frequent practice of programming standard repertoire alongside lesser-known or new music of comparable quality, the Boston Chamber Music Society offered the String Quintet, Op. 77, of Dvořák, and the Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 10, of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) at Jordan Hall on Sunday, to conclude its season.
African-Briton Coleridge-Taylor achieved considerable success and international renown composing in multiple genres despite having a cruelly short lifespan of 37 years. He wrote his clarinet quintet when he was a composition student of Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. I was impressed with the assurance and originality of a seemingly callow 20-year-old music student, allowing his work to be comfortably juxtaposed with that of a world-famous 47-year-old composer. The younger man professed his admiration of the elder, but one is hard pressed to hear the influence of Dvořák (or any other composer) very often in his music.
Clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois, violinists Alyssa Wang (a guest artist with BCMS) and Jennifer Frautschi, violist Dimitri Murrath, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan infused the clarinet quintet’s opening Allegro energico with drama and mutability of moods, with frequent alternations of major and minor. The composer made full use of the clarinet as solo melody, accompanying inner voice, and in melodic duet with the first violin (in octaves). De Guise-Langlois attentively placed her sound in the foreground or background as required by the music, as did her fellow artists. Though Coleridge-Taylor’s harmony is frequently advanced, suggesting his awareness of the music of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, it remains largely within the 1890s mainstream.
Muted high-register violins and viola in the luminous key of B major created a celestial opening to the Larghetto affettuoso though the clarinet and cello soon added a terrestrial element. Much of the movement contrasted Wang’s ethereal high violin with de Guise-Langlois’s burnished tenor range and Ramakrishnan’s warm cello bassline. Both music and performance were especially beautiful here.
The rollicking triplet rhythms of the Scherzo lent it a light-spirited air on the surface, but here too were undercurrents of a more serious mood. Coleridge-Taylor employed rather more adventurous rhythms in this movement, but the players’ well-honed ensemble kept them consistently clear. While the strings largely carried the outer sections’ energetic melody or shared it with the clarinet, de Guise-Langlois used the solo spotlight to advantage in the more relaxed Trio’s folk-like main tune.
The musicians gave the Finale’s driving main theme as much drama as anything in the work. As in the first movement, the frequent swapping of melodic and accompanimental roles required sensitive ears for balance, and the performers unfailingly demonstrated that they had them. This movement featured a number of interestingly unorthodox but convincing harmonic progressions. The clarinet part, though not overtly virtuosic, had more opportunities for display. The coda turned up the heat for a powerful ending.
The Dvořák Quintet featured the same string quartet—though Frautschi took the first violin seat and Wang the second—with the addition of Thomas Van Dyck on double bass. Given the opening movement’s Allegro con fuoco marking, the gentle opening, beginning with cello and double bass was unexpected, but it proved to be the composer’s introduction of one of the movement’s most important motifs, using both triplet eighths and sixteenths. The artists gave an extroverted but nuanced rendering of this big-hearted music, alert to its mosaic of motifs as well as the many contrasts of accented rhythms with sustained, lyrical melodies.
Dvořák, like Coleridge-Taylor, also played with rhythm in his Scherzo, nominally in 6/8 time but with many accents, carefully observed by the musicians, that created interesting cross-rhythms. Nonetheless, the Scherzo’s outer E minor sections had the feeling of a dance, a frequent trademark of the composer. The Trio (in the mildly surprising key of C major) allowed some sweet repose in duple meter, though its frequent off-beat motion and touches of rubato made it slightly more rhythmically ambiguous, at least initially. The return to E minor was bracing and refreshing, as if to fully awaken a dreamy listener. Adding some final cross-rhythms to the triplet figure heard almost throughout, the coda built to an emphatic major-mode conclusion.
For the slow movement Dvořák returned to C major and with the simplest of means (a mostly stepwise melody) created a lovely song. In this movement the inner voices were of particular importance, though inevitably the first violin had the “diva” moments; Frautschi played them beautifully. The composer explored a wide emotional terrain and range of keys. The enchanting ending took the quartet up to heavenly heights, gently echoed with the addition of the double bass.
As in the first movement, the Finale’s handful of motives prove to be a useful basis for the larger movement, one often feeling like a natural development of its predecessor. The artists effectively alternated rusticity with near-symphonic grandeur. In prior movements the double bass was frequently relegated to adding a deeper bass and defining rhythm, but here it was more often integrated into the larger motivic structure and melodies, and Van Dyck played this music handsomely. The concluding bars, featuring neither a showy acceleration nor a majestic ritard, simultaneously plainspoken and celebratory, made a fine choice for a sunny spring afternoon.