Beethoven’s only string quintet, the four-movement C Major, op. 29 from 1801, appears chronologically among examples like the Opus 28 Piano Sonata and the Opus 30 Violin Sonatas, and just before the Symphony No. 2, op. 36 — in other words, straining at the limits of Haydn classicism. There’s a Mozartian flavor to the four movements, and just as much of the relaxed vigor of Beethoven’s Opus 18 string quartets. Some features are formally striking: the Second Theme in A major-minor in the C major first movement; the interruption in the 6/8 Presto finale by a ruminative minuet, which reappears in the Coda (shades of Mozart’s K. 271 and 482). Above all, it’s a fresh and lovable work, and was comfortably played by Boston Chamber Music Society at Jordan Hall yesterday afternoon. Yura Lee and Jennifer Frautschi, violins; Dimitri Murrath and Marcus Thompson, viola; Raman Ramakrishnan, cello, obviously having a good time, delivered big-boned and elegant tones, advocating for a piece that had been shamefully absent from my known repertory.
The premiere of Scott Wheeler’s new Sextet for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, contrabass, and piano, a BCMS commission, took center place. Its five short movements conveyed a wide range of tonal expression, sometimes with Coplandesque treble harmony, elsewhere with grumbling and gritty low-register bounces, and a fondness for abrupt, dangling cadences. “The Secret Journey” showed all of these in a clever combination; “I speak to the birds,” a fleet scherzo, featured high string trills and a jazz-like assortment of mixed dominant-seventh chords in the piano. A special eloquence came through in “Urban Nocturne,” with a warmly expressive duet for clarinet and double bass at the beginning and oboe-viola near the end, with whole-tone piano in the middle. “The Alchemist” gave a brittle, staccato accompaniment to a funny high-register melody for double bass, followed by a long oboe melody in closing. The fast finale, “Proverbs from Purgatory,” included an obsessive repetition on middle C-sharp, tremolo strings and repeated drips in the piano, and I remembered this same C-sharp in Debussy’s Sébastien (in the “Danse extatique”), faithfully copied by Messiaen in the “Chant d’amour I” in Turangalîla (see pp. 37 and 67 of the score) — and then a sudden arrival like a hiccup followed by silence. The composer’s notes explain the significance of the titles, deriving from poetic sources as well as sketches in progress; “Proverbs from Purgatory” came from Lloyd Schwartz, who was in the audience. Wheeler answered the BCMS commission call with varied inspiration and genuine warmth and wit, creating a thoroughly likable addition to the chamber music repertoire. Oboist Peggy Pearson and clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois traded arching phrases, violinist Jennifer Frautschi enjoyed a snazzy role, and pianist Max Levinson engaged with the notes and his colleagues with clarity; Marcus Thompson, viola, and double-bassist Thomas Van Dyck supplied well-inflected weight.
Bicentenarian César Franck (1822-90), the deeply Catholic Belgian, did more than anyone to revolutionize large-form music in Paris after the Franco-Prussian War. His Piano Quintet in F Minor (1880) is the earliest of his single major works in every genre that can be associated with his maturity as a composer. It’s big, heavy, and noisy, and it shows a kind of exploratory chromaticism that Franck simplified in his later works. Saint-Saëns, the original pianist and the dedicatee, allegedly protested the constant modulations, and Franck’s wife similarly complained, but its broad expressiveness has always appealed to aficionados of the late Romantic. Dvořák’s Quintet in A Major is just as long and heavy, and Brahms’s early quintet (also in F minor) may be more truly classical, but Franck’s shows French modernism at a time when the French badly needed an answer to Wagner. Rebecca Marchand’s excellent essay in the program booklet cites Franck’s inspiration from Act I of Tristan und Isolde; this quintet, though, shows as much stimulus from Liszt, especially when we remember that Franck had begun his career as a piano virtuoso before turning to the organ. Jennifer Frautschi, Yura Lee, violins; Dimitri Murrath, viola; Raman Ramakrishnan, cello; and Max Levinson, piano, played the churning excesses with admirable seriousness of purpose and advocacy.
Hearty congratulations to BCMS — brilliant as it was busy — with a heroic hats-off to Max Levinson, piano, who handled Franck’s many, many notes with grace and aplomb, and to Marcus Thompson for his decades of organizing these concerts. BCMS filled Jordan Hall with torrents of old-master sound.