Boston and Leipzig musicians strike sparks in chamber program

February 12, 2018 at 1:48 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performed Mendelssohn's Octet Sunday at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra performed Mendelssohn’s Octet Sunday at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Leipzig week in Boston has been a truly memorable event. Exhibits at the Boston Public Library and lectures by some of Boston’s leading scholars have shed light onto the musical legacies of two cities that now share a single conductor, Andris Nelsons. Chief among the week’s activities have been concerts that reflect a unique multi-season cultural exchange between the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The culminating event of the week took place Sunday afternoon at Symphony Hall, where the Boston Symphony Chamber Players joined forces with the Gewandhaus-Quartett for a program of music by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Ligeti, and Foss. The rich traditions of both ensembles seemed to bring additional electricity to this wide-ranging program.

The Gewandhaus-Quartett is the oldest surviving string quartet in the world, but the ensemble remains on the cutting edge for performances of both old and new music.  Their recent catalogue includes critically acclaimed recordings of Beethoven’s complete quartets as well as music by living composers.

As an ensemble, violinists Frank-Michael Erben and Conrad Suske, violist Anton Jivaev, and cellist Jürnjakob Timm play with a smooth, cohesive blend. In their opening work Sunday afternoon, Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 64 No. 5, “The Lark,” the musicians performed with a bright, silvery tone. Yet they proved capable of changing colors on a dime. In the minuet, they brought a slight grain to the sound to give the music a rustic quality. The finale, taken at whip-crack speed, featured the foursome in deft fiddling that kept the music propelling forward. The beautiful melodic writing of the first two movements gleamed with singing tone. Only a few instances of wayward intonation marred an otherwise fine performance.

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players had a stellar afternoon in their featured work, Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for wind quintet. The ensemble—Elizabeth Rowe (flute), John Ferrillo (oboe), William R. Hudgins (clarinet), Richard Svoboda (bassoon), and James Sommerville (French horn)—performed these crystalline miniatures just last month at Jordan Hall, and their reading of Ligeti’s bold, coloristic writing has grown even deeper.

The precision-cut lines of the first bagatelle sparkled with clarity, and Rowe’s piccolo solo brought a touch of sly humor. In the second, Ferrillo’s chant-like oboe line unfolded delicately into Svoboda’s mournful bassoon phrase. Sommerville’s blaring horn faded into a warm ensemble chord by movement’s end. The players treated the folk-flavored line of the third bagatelle with grace, while the fourth moved with propulsive energy. Biting flute calls in the fifth movement, an ode to Bartók, spread about the ensemble and grew increasingly intense, even managing to swing in one brief moment. The final bagatelle sounded with a touch of sarcasm.

Lukas Foss’s For Aaron brought some of the afternoon richest moments. Composed in 2002 and premiered in Tanglewood by fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, this short work evokes the style of Aaron Copland, to whose memory it was dedicated. Resonant phrases conjure the big, outdoorsy feel of Copland’s popular ballet scores. Yet there’s a touch of jazz and blues that tilts the music towards darkness. Conductor Moritz Gnann drew crisp and robust playing from the combined ensemble of Gewandhaus-Quartett and Chamber Players musicians. Brass and wind chords supplied weight and gravity to the reading while the strings, led by Erben’s beaming solo violin, enabled Foss’s soaring lines to lift off the ground. Thomas Rolfs’ warm, singing trumpet solos were also a particular highlight.

After intermission, the Gewandhaus-Quartett and Chamber Players offered one of the masterpieces of chamber literature, Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20. Both ensembles meshed for a radiant tonal blend. And like the Haydn quartet that opened the program, this performance was vibrant and colorful. Bold dynamic shading added a singing quality to the first movement’s themes. The players dug in for a dramatic development section. The phrases of the second movement were shaped in vocal arcs, and in the Scherzo, the ensemble took on a sharp edge of tone to bring a dusky quality to the movement’s effervescent figures. This rough-edged approach continued into the finale, and the movements’ fugue roiled with energy right up to the end. The audience rewarded the musicians with rapturous applause. And with that, the Gewandhaus-BSO alliance was underway.

The next concert of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players will feature pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in music by Haydn, Berwald, and Dvorák 3 p.m. March 11 at Jordan Hall.; 888-266-1200.

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