Boston Symphony Chamber Players brings warmth to varied program

March 11, 2013 at 10:40 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players performed Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor, K.516, Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Sunshine and warmer temperatures, especially on the weekend, bring repose. That feeling was abundant in Jordan Hall Sunday afternoon when the Boston Symphony Chamber Players offered sparkling and warm-toned performances of chamber music rarities.

A trio of BSO musicians—flutist Elizabeth Rowe, violist Stephen Ansell, and bassist Edwin Barker—opened the program with Ervín Schulhoff’s intricate Concertino for flute, viola, and double bass. The Czech-born Schulhoff explored almost every contemporary musical style in his short life (he died at age 48 from tuberculosis at Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942), and the Concertino is a mix of folk, impressionistic, and neoclassical elements.

Ansell and Barker opened with a pristine, pentatonic ostinato—reminiscent of Russian Orthodox chant—that is spread between two octaves. Soon after, Rowe entered with a velvety-toned melody that maneuvers freely between modal and chromatic phrases. The music moves on to adopt a thick, almost Straussian density despite the small forces involved. Through all, Rowe, Ansell, Barker performed with spring-water clarity.

In the second movement, the mood transformed when Rowe, on piccolo, offered a fiery scherzo modeled on a Czech folk dance. Barker matched her energy with machine-like control of the bass’s virtuosic passagework. The musicians played the third movement Andante with the same pure tone of the opening. And the witty closing movement, based on a song of a Russian bear tamer, showcased Rowe in a dexterous reading of the Petrushka-esque melody that sparkles over churning, and pizzicato strings.

To open the concert, violinists Haldan Martinson and Elita Kang, cellist Jules Eskin and keyboardist Vytas Baksys performed Dvořák’s Bagatelles, Op 47.

Bagatelles, by definition, are trifles, short pieces for light entertainment that don’t plumb musical or emotional depths. But in Dvořák’s hands, the five Op. 47 Bagatelles for two violins, cello, and harmonium, when played together, almost constitute a sonata, where themes recur with alteration. For instance, the theme of the first bagatelle returns with variations in the third one. And the polka-like opening of the fifth piece closely resembles that same melody. The musicians performed Dvořák’s collection of short works with these unifying features in mind, playing each incarnation with a lush ensemble sound.

But that approach seemed to weigh the music down, particularly in the first bagatelle, marked Allegretto scherzando, where the folk-tinged music came off too creamy and lacking a scherzo’s lighter touch. Similarly, the second bagatelle, marked Tempo di minuetto, failed to dance. The piece, however, showcased fine playing from Martinson, whose silvery violin tone sang effortlessly over the ensemble. The harmonium serves primarily as accompaniment in this score, but in this bagatelle, the instrument rose from the texture for a brief solo. In both instances, Baksys rendered the part with a fine touch.

The musicians adopted a lighter feel with the third piece of the collection–marked the same as the first– where the music moved gracefully in some of the florid phrases of the variations. The pastoral-sounding fourth bagatelle, which featured violin and cello in close canon, was phrased sweetly and maintained, appropriately, the richness and depth of the opening piece. The polka-flavored fifth capered, though the musicians, in the process, seemed to lose their focused ensemble sound.

A non-rarity, Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor, K. 516, which closed the concert, gave the strings room for greater expressive range. Together, violist Cathy Basrak, Ansell, Kang, Martinson, and Eskin performed with exquisite balance and sensitively hewn phrases in the first movement. Ansell and Kang, playing the lead part, traded expressive dialogue with earthy, singing tone. The second-movement Menuetto, despite its character of “protest and rage” mentioned in the program notes, danced in the cantabile phrases.

The ensemble’s warm sound suited the almost Beethovenian quality of the third movement. And Kang’s violin soared in the mournful aria-flavored melody of the fourth movement’s opening Adagio. Before sending everyone back out into the sunshine, the musicians brightened the mood with an agile and spirited reading of the concluding Allegro.

The final Boston Symphony Chamber Players concert of the season will feature works by Janácek, Martinů, and Brahms 3 p.m. April 28 at Jordan Hall.

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