Boston Symphony Chamber Players shine in music of Carter and Brahms

November 19, 2012 at 1:51 am

By David Wright

Kirill Gerstein performed Brahms' Piano Quintet with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players played host to two distinguished visitors from abroad Sunday afternoon in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall—but in the end it was the local stars that shone brightest.

The English composer-conductor-pianist Thomas Adès and the Russian-born, German-resident pianist Kirill Gerstein played an encore to their recent collaboration in BSO concerts: Beethoven’s four-hand piano arrangement of his Grosse Fuge for string quartet.  Gerstein returned after the intermission to play Brahms’s Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, with a quartet of the BSO’s principal string players.

But musical laurels for the afternoon went to what came between: two pieces by the late Elliott Carter, superbly performed by still more BSO section leaders, six in all.

There are plenty of reasons to listen to a musical work in “piano reduction,” disparaging as the term may sound. A well-made arrangement—one thinks of Liszt’s piano version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for two pianos—can shed considerable light on the original.  So one looked forward to hearing Beethoven’s keyboard reflections on his own great, thorny piece.

But illumination was in short supply on Sunday, and not for any lack of enthusiasm or dexterity on the part of Adès and Gerstein.  (Watching them reach over and under each other as the fugue’s voices crossed was endlessly amusing, and impressive.)  One was reminded that a string quartet is the equivalent of quadraphonic stereo, while a piano is mono.  To hear all that commotion coming out of just one “speaker”—admittedly one that was nine feet long—made it harder, not easier, to tell what was going on in the music.

It didn’t help that Beethoven marked most of the piece an unrelenting fortissimo, except for the middle section, which is pianissimo throughout.  That made it harder to distinguish the voices by tone color, which Adès and Gerstein didn’t supply much of anyway.

But it was revealing to hear Beethoven’s leaping fugue subject on a percussion instrument, sounding more urgent than ever, and recalling some similarly aggressive moments in the composer’s late piano sonatas, such as the Hammerklavier and Op. 111.

After that, it was a relief to hear just one stringed instrument play music written specifically for it.  And in the case of double bassist Edwin Barker’s performance of Figment III, composed by Elliott Carter in 2007, relief quickly turned to delight.

Parker’s elegant, café-au-lait tone sang out in all registers as he paused to reflect, took off in a spurt, or executed dizzying leaps from low to high and vice versa.  Pizzicatos of all kinds—regular, snap, and left-hand—leavened the mix.  The result was classic Carter: unpredictable, colorful, expressive.

Next, five BSO principals turned back the Carter clock almost sixty years, to 1948 and his Woodwind Quintet.  Carter once said he’d written this music to emphasize the individual character of each instrument, not the ensemble blend, and one could discern that sensibility here and there in the piece.

But these five players have been tuning up their sound week after week for years, and it showed.  While each of them—flutist Elizabeth Rowe, oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William R. Hudgins, bassoonist Richard Svoboda, and horn player James Sommerville—has played many a vibrant solo with the BSO, they also can cut back on vibrato and fit their sounds together in an uncanny way, as if even their overtones match.  The air in Jordan Hall seemed almost to change shape when these five blew together.

The performance also created the conversation among equals that Carter had promised.  Although this piece in two short movements is said to be from Carter’s “neoclassical period”—composed under the influence of Stravinsky and Carter’s teacher Nadia Boulanger—-the performers brought out its frank, Coplandesque quality, something quite different from the recherché feeling one sometimes gets with the neoclassical Stravinsky and his imitators.

In particular, the jazzy second movement scintillated with effortless transitions from legato playing to choppy and syncopated, and back again.  Like everything else in this performance, the little shrug at the end was perfectly timed, and brought delighted laughter from the audience.

After that, it took a fairly long intermission to reset one’s ears for one of the most fiercely tragic works in chamber music, Brahms’s Piano Quintet.  In fact, as the first movement began, pianist Gerstein and the BSO principals—violinist Malcolm Lowe, second violinist Haldan Martinson, violist Steven Ansell, and cellist Jules Eskin—seemed to have their dials set on Mendelssohn instead of Brahms.  The anxiety, smoldering rage, and deep groans that Brahms put in this music were nowhere to be found as the first few pages hummed along.

This is one of those chamber works where the pianist sets the tone, and in this case Gerstein—who was playing his part from an iPad—seemed to hang back where he should have taken the lead and pulled the strings with him.  But by the time the same themes came around in the recapitulation, the pianist had found his footing, and everyone played with more impact.

The Andante relies even more on the piano to project its deeply Brahmsian mood: tender, stoical, unutterably sad.  Gerstein’s rather hard, shallow tone didn’t help here, although once again he and his colleagues rallied to put a glow on the movement’s closing pages.

From this point, the piece just grew in momentum throughout the scherzo and finale, and here the players seemed at last to be on their home field, Gerstein never meeting a crescendo or an accelerando he didn’t like, and the string players furiously matching his pace.

The scherzo crackled with energy, and the gypsy-flavored finale surged and brooded and surged again, the players perfectly in synch.  One couldn’t have asked for a hotter, more raging coda, and the audience gasped at the sudden, crushing conclusion.  If this performance was inconsistent overall, one had to admire that terrific finish—and the audience did just that, on its feet.

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players will perform works of Lutosławski, Frank, and Copland January 13 at Jordan Hall. bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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