Boston Symphony Chamber Players offer a diverting English journey

April 23, 2012 at 11:34 pm

By Keith Powers

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players performing Gordon Jacob's Sextet Sunday at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Completing a season that included surveys of Czech, Viennese and Russian composers, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players turned to England for inspiration Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. The program included Britten’s Phantasy Quartet and Sinfonietta, Court Studies from The Tempest by Thomas Adès, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, and Gordon Jacob’s Sextet for piano and winds.

One would not expect from such a program that the highlight might be the little-known Jacobs’ Sextet. Composed in 1956 in memory of the noted horn player, Aubrey Brain, its five movements pivot around a central Cortège. Far from a dreary dirge, the Sextet exhibits all the variety of a Bach suite

The sextet begins with a dotted-note Prelude, passed expertly in overlapping fashion from flute (Elizabeth Rowe) to clarinet (William Hudgins), oboe (John Ferrillo) and bassoon (Richard Svoboda), with French horn principal James Sommerville adding accents. It was a remarkable sort of roundabout, with each player lingering over notes taken from the dedicatee’s name (A-B-E-B-A) as a memorial.

The Cortège also features a dotted marking, and another complex, overlapping lyric passage, sounding almost Baroque over the martial beat. Svoboda elegantly rendered a high phrase in the bassoon at its center, which initialized an ensemble chorale. A dance movement and concluding Rondo return to individual passages: of note, Rowe’s brief solo in the finale, with crisp phrasing, and Sommerville’s sturdy, lighthearted jaunt that preceded it.

Pianist Vytas Baksys accompanied the wind ensemble for the Jacobs Sextet as well as the Adès selections. Thomas Adès’ Court Studies was inspired by his own opera music. Set for clarinet, violin (Malcolm Lowe), cello (Martha Babcock) and piano, Adès’ language is entirely his own. The moment a hint of Strauss, or Stravinsky, or any other composer seems to present itself, he moves on. This peregrination characterizes the work, which has six different programmatic sections, but moves restlessly through each. Slow moods predominate: the finale, with Lowe bowing the slowest, quietest, most exposed notes on the violin, made much of the work comprehensible retrospectively.

Elgar’s Serenade is a string player’s dream. Tuneful and elegiac, befitting the composer’s strengths, its central slow movement had Lowe artfully stretching the melody to dissonant tension, then drawing back. An exercise in counterpoint, the quintet often set Lowe, violinist Haldan Martinson and even bass Edwin Barker against the unison ensemble.

The program was bookended by early works from Britten, both written in 1932. The through-composed Phantasy, for oboe quartet, featured deliciously long, lyrical phrases from principal violist Steven Ansell, played over sharply rhythmic gestures from the rest of the ensemble. The work was interrupted at the beginning of the finale: Ferrillo let out an oboe squawk, immediately signaled for a halt; he did some quick repair on his instrument, and play resumed as if nothing had happened.

The Sinfonietta, Britten’s first published work, brought all the players (minus Baksys) onstage. Early works provide listeners a chance to imagine how a composer subsequently developed. This is no exception: hints of the vocal genius, and the experimenter abound. Two sections were of particular allure: a melodic duet between Martinson and Lowe, and a furious ostinato initiated by Ansell that gradually inhabited all the strings, and culminated in a horn blast from Sommerville.

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