The Boston Symphony Chamber Players on Sunday offered up an eclectic mixture of chamber music to a roughly half-filled Jordan Hall (alas, they were competing with the likes of Itzhak Perlman, who was performing just down the street at Symphony Hall). Founded in 1964, the Chamber Players generally (though not always) comprise the principal string and wind players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and these concerts encourage such individuals to display their versatility in smaller groupings .. without a conductor. Last Suinday BCCCSCP offered highly contrasting works by Beethoven, Ravel, and Sofia Gubaidulina to an enthusiastic audience.
Ravel’s chamber works are small in number but of high quality. He composed his Introduction and Allegro for harp, accompanied by string quartet, flute, and clarinet to a commission froom the piano and harp manufacturer Érard (one notes from Ravel’s title that he intentionally placed the spotlight on the harp), completing it in June 1905, the year after his well-known single string quartet. Jessica Zhou, harp; Haldan Martinson, violin I; Lucia Lin, violin II; Steven Ansell, viola; Blaise Déjardin, cello; Elizabeth Klein, flute; and William R. Hudgins, clarinet presided. The introduction’s opening chaste duet of flute and clarinet (later of viola and cello) created an otherworldly atmosphere that alternated with more extroverted harp arpeggios. It was only natural that these orchestral players vividly illustrated how, even in a chamber ensemble, Ravel was acutely sensitive to orchestral timbres and colors: the next section had a beautiful fluttering accompaniment in the woodwinds and upper strings as Déjardin’s cello spun out the melody below. Ultimately, though, this is a miniature harp concerto, Ravel having impressively fulfilled his commission by writing in a variety of styles for the instrument and including many effects unique to it: plain chordal writing, broken chords (arpeggios) sometimes with melodies embedded within them, chordal glissandos, harmonics, et al. After an extended solo harp cadenza comes (for me) the most seductive effect of all: Zhou took up the opening flute-clarinet theme in thirds as well as the cello melody, playing them with muted harmonics and surrounding them with barely audible whispered arpeggios. As with the introduction before, these themes led organically to the allegro theme, originally played just by the harp, but in the recapitulation accompanied by the full ensemble. After passage of the melody from the harp to nearly all the other instruments and back again, Zhou commenced a delicious theme in alternating chords and the ensemble began a gradual crescendo and acceleration culminating in a scintillating coda and stunning ending. The harpist encouraged her colleagues to stand with her immediately to acknowledge the hearty applause, but they paid her the tribute of remaining seated to allow her a solo bow. Nonetheless, I believe anyone present would say that all the musicians involved created this superlative performance, Zhou being simply first among equals.
Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), widely considered the foremost living Russian composer, has enjoyed a decades-long association with the BSO which will give the American premiere of her Prologue for Orchestra a year from now. Double bassist Edwin Barker and pianist Randall Hodgkinson essayed her single-movement Sonata for double bass and piano (1975). The composer dintended that the two instruments seem largely unaware of each other most of the time. Barker began with a lengthy solo of fragmentary phrases beginning in the bass’s bottom octave but spanning multiple registers. When Hodgkinson entered, some two minutes into the work, the piano’s chords began in a high register and descended; contrasting with the improvisatory bass part, the piano writing featured more structured rhythm. Only in the middle of the sonata did the two instruments seem to become “partners,” with some imitative writing evoking a musical conversation. Generally, though, my attention was largely held by Gubaidulina’s explorations of unusual textures and alternative sounds: the pianist’s hands playing four or five octaves apart, sustained bass pizzicatos that bent the pitch, the pianist reaching into the piano to gently stroke deep bass strings, etc. The sonata, I daresay, endears itself to only a minority of listeners; one could argue it could not have been written a couple decades earlier as it would have seriously transgressed the doctrine of Socialist Realism under Stalin that stifled any composers with keenly modernist sympathies. One could admire the serious-minded and earnest performance by Barker and Hodgkinson while wondering what it all meant.
Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20, seems to a reputation similar to that of Ravel’s Bolero: its great popularity ultimately annoyed its composer who felt that the work adumbrated others more sophisticated and accomplished that he had also written. Beethoven’s attitude may have given license to supercilious commentary down to modern times, e.g. “The New Grove Dictionary of Music” description of the Septet as “amiable, but rather mindless.” But a composer whose music is ever profound and visionary may eventually become wearying to audiences, and especially in a time of continual domestic incivility and turmoil, this work that shows the young Beethoven’s bonhomie and good humor was just what the doctor ordered. The Septet’s six-movement format, at first glance, also seems to imply a “light music” assortment of bon-bons, but the master’s thematic development and sometimes quasi-orchestral scale dispel such a notion. Effete criticisms aside, the composer regularly displays his creativity here, starting with the unorthodox scoring for, in essence, one wind trio of clarinet, bassoon, and horn (played by William R. Hudgins, Richard Svoboda, and Michael Winter), one string trio of violin, viola, and cello (Haldan Martinson, Steven Ansell, and Blaise Déjardin), and double bass (Edwin Barker). Beethoven makes little attempt at egalitarianism among all the instruments of the ensemble, assigning most of the melodic material to the two highest, violin and clarinet, while using the lower-range instruments to impart a pleasantly earthy quality.
The first movement (Adagio—Allegro con brio) featured the elegant exchange of themes between Martinson and Hudgins as well as the juxtaposition of refined and less sophisticated pronouncements that characterized much of the whole work. The Adagio cantabile second movement beguiled listeners with the bel canto clarinet solos expressively rendered by Hudgins, the murmuring lyricism of the shifting accompaniments, and a glowing horn solo from Winter. The composer’s inspiration in this movement—and, of course, the BSCP’s warm-hearted performance—were sufficient to debunk any notion of the piece as “lightweight” Beethoven. Subtle humor followed in the third movement (Tempo di menuetto) in which the composer quotes his own music: the charmingly demure minuet from his G major piano sonata, Op. 49 No. 2, had here a rustic jocularity, transposed down to E flat major with bottom-heavy textural reinforcement from the lower instruments. In the Trio the high spirits overflowed in chortling triplets from the horn and clarinet. In the next movement the master showed his great imagination in creating variations of every stripe on a simple tune, including polyphonic development, imitative writing, call and answer between strings and winds, etc. He also gives the players greater opportunity for technical display than heretofore, and the BSO musicians certainly delivered. In the fifth-movement Scherzo, however, the technical display reached a still higher level: Winter’s horn calls seemed to lead an exciting hunt in a breathless triple meter. The irresistible rhythm of all the players propelled us with unflagging energy throughout. The final movement opens with a very somber funeral march which leads unexpectedly into a Presto of barely repressed exuberance. Soon enough, though, it shakes off that repression and builds to a solo violin cadenza—delivered with panache by Martinson—and a most emphatic conclusion. While one cannot deny the greatness of Beethoven the visionary, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Boston Symphony Chamber Players for skillfully reminding us of the earthier side of the composer via his delicious Septet.