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French and French-inspired music was the main attraction in the concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra this past week. The trend continued Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall where the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, in their final concert of the season, offered sparkling performances of three colorful French works.
Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, in town due to his current appearances as soloist with the BSO in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, was on stage Sunday as an honorary Chamber Player, joining the musicians in elegant readings of pieces by Poulenc and Fauré.
Poulenc’s Sextet for piano and winds, heard Sunday, is a blazing score and a masterwork of piano and wind writing. The Chamber Players delivered its mercurial lines with fire and verve. The climactic moments of the first movement were powerful and expressive, with the musicians playing the music with an appropriate rough edge to the tone. That changed mid-movement where Richard Svoboda lofted a rosy-toned bassoon solo to introduce the music’s glacial passages. At the keyboard, Thibaudet filled out the picture with a full palette of colorful playing.
The other movements fared just as well. The finale, with its jazzy syncopations, was played with crisp energy. And the Mozartean phrase that opened the second movement, offered up by oboist John Ferrillo before he passed it on to the other winds, had the same soulful expression and round tone that would fit an operatic aria.
But the richest playing of the afternoon came in the Chamber Players’ performance of Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, a silky work that brims with lush string and piano phrases.
The outer movements, in particular, are imbued with the romantic smolder so characteristic to Fauré’s style, and the ensemble—consisting of Thibaudet, Malcolm Lowe (violin), Steven Ansell (viola), and Jules Eskin (cello)—gave a deep and resonant performance.
The second movement Scherzo is chock-full of witty themes, and the Chamber Players performed them with percolating energy. Thibaudet played his part with fine touch, sprinkling delicate phrases over pizzicato strings. The Adagio was especially gorgeous. Bright string sonorities highlighted the slow, mournful phrases like rays of sunshine through clouds. Thibaudet’s accompaniment, here, was pearly and deep.
The Chamber Players opened with Jean Françaix’s Dixtuor for a double quintet of winds and strings.
Françaix’s music shows up on Chamber Players’ concerts every so often, and it’s easy to see why. His charming and acrobatic works are fine examples of French neo-classicism, filled with biting wit, a generous shading of dissonance, and bubbly rhythmic drive.
Performances of Dixtuor often emphasize a sharpness of texture through firm, even forceful treatment of the melodic and harmonic writing. But that wasn’t the case Sunday as the Chamber Players gave the piece a reading of soft delicacy.
That was evident from the opening Larghetto, which featured violinist Malcolm Lowe in a rich, mahogany-colored melody. The phrase was passed among oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William Hudgins, and flutist Elizabeth Rowe, who each rendered it with golden tone.
The ensuing Allegro had lots of character, the musicians mining the impish and pastoral phrases to beautiful and humorous effect. And the Finale moved steadily in its propulsive rhythms.
Nowhere was the performance more supple that in the Andante. There, harmonies slither along in unusual progressions, and the Chamber Players floated them with velvety touch. Even the squirrelly runs of the Scherzo sounded svelte, and the musicians took time to mine the humor from this charming movement.
The Boston Symphony Chamber Players will appear as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, teaming up with pianist Emanuel Ax for music by Schumann and Mozart 8 p.m. June 25 at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. rockportmusic.org
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