String foursomes frequently link up with a fifth instrument to investigate an extended repertory beyond the already huge body of works composed for the standard makeup of two violins, viola, and cello. Mozart wrote quintets with a second viola and also with a clarinet; Schubert added a second cello to the configuration. Schumann enhanced the form with the piano to form a combination that many composers followed.
In the mid-20th-century Latin music began to flourish in the classical idiom, especially in the tangos of Astor Piazzolla. His added his favorite instrument, the bandoneon (a relative of the concertina and second cousin to the accordion), to frequent participation in classical music ensembles. Thus, on Wednesday at Ozawa Hall, we witnessed Julien Labro join the highly regarded Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violins; Richard O’Neill, viola; and András Fejer, cello) for a stimulating program in Ozawa Hall bookended by works for the full quintet. Inside this pair, Labro dispatched three solos and the Takács offered a standard work in its repertory, the Ravel String Quartet.
Circles, a quintet by Bryce Dessner (b. 1976), grows hypnotically, opposing bandoneon and quartet, soloist alternating with ensemble, in a mostly tranquil state. Its companion piece at the end of concert, Clash by its Argentine composer Clarice Assad, is a dark and sometimes noisy expression of the opposed complexities and difficulties of the present, tossing fragmented elements back and forth among the participants.
Julien Labro (b. 1980) discovered the bandoneon while still quite young—but, as he explained, not in time to meet Astor Piazzolla. Yet he shapes much of his own music in internal connections to Piazzolla’s, especially in Astoraciòn, which makes use of a recording of Piazzolla talking (it is purposely not entirely clear as it emerges from the bandoneon, which was set running automatically with “puffing” sounds interspersed with the recording, while Labro himself takes a Latin wind instrument, a button melodica, to duet with his own bandoneon.
Noting the bandeon’s origin in 19th-century Germany, Labro explained that it originally supported worship in small churches that could not afford an organ. As a way of suggesting this tradition, he gave a remarkable take on J.S. Bach’s well-known chorale prelude Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme with the melodica set up to provide different sonorities for each of the three lines of the chorale—the bass line, the flowing melody above it, and then, in sustained long notes, the melody of the hymn tune itself. He played it elegantly and demonstrated how effective such a performance might be in a small church.
The Takács tackled Ravel’s String Quartet, the only conventional example of the form on this unusually colored program, with ravishing elegance and dramatic elan.
As a farewell, Labro announced an encore in the bandoneon’s most familiar genre, the tango. Together he and the foursome gently rocked to Melodia Sentimental by Heitor Villa- Lobos.
This most unusual program reshaped our listening habits with stimulating surprises.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.