Boston Symphony Chamber Players look back with music of Fine and Copland

January 13, 2014 at 12:41 pm

By Stefanie Lubkowski

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players (concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, principal cellist Jules Eskin, principal violist Steve Ansell and pianist Gilbert Kalish) perform Brahms Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner.

As part of their 50th anniversary commemorations, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players revived a program from 1965, giving the audience a chance to hear music by Aaron Copland and Irving Fine alongside more familiar concert staples by Mozart and Brahms on Sunday at Jordan Hall.

Copland’s piano trio “Vitebsk,” Study on a Jewish Theme, is not a simply a folksong setting, but rather, a rendering which mines the emotional depths of the tune through an exploration of its essential material. Copland starts with strident chords in the piano and a repetition of a descending major second.

From these basic gestures, the tune emerges in the low register of the piano and cello, emphasizing its melancholy quality. Copland maintains this harmonic and emotional bite even through the contrasting fast section. The trio, with Gilbert Kalish on piano, Haldan Martinson on violin, and Jules Eskin on cello, performed “Vitebsk” with a effortless-seeming intensity punctuated by Kalish’s crisp touch.

Although Irving Fine is a composer with deep Boston roots, who taught at both Harvard and Brandeis and had several premieres with the BSO in the 1960s, his music is unfortunately not heard so often today, even in his hometown. His Fantasia for String Trio combines 20th-century harmony and thematic development with a late Romantic sense of emotional extremity to create a work that is simultaneously fresh and accessible.

The first movement, an Adagio, opens with a slightly labored, but intensely emotional theme in the viola which is quickly elaborated by the violin and cello. While Jules Eskin executed his pizzicato accompaniment figures in a rather remote manner, he came through, as did violist Steven Ansell and violinist Martinson, with the theme, rendering it as lovely as anything written by Brahms or Tchaikovsky.

The middle-movement Scherzo provides the most musical excitement with intensely ear-catching combinations of and interplay between pizzicato, various bowed articulations, and timbral shadings such as sul ponticello and sul tasto. Yet, the ensemble seemed rather detached from the music, robbing it of a measure of energy it surely deserved.   The Lento that closed the piece began again with a theme from the viola, but one that set a more somber, sedate tone, bringing the trio to a beautiful ending in which the violin soared over dark harmonies.

Before the intermission, wind players oboist John Ferillo, clarinetist William R. Hudgins, bassoonist Richard Svoboda, and hornist James Somerville joined Gilbert Kalish for Mozart’s Piano Quintet in E-flat (K. 542).  This warm and graceful piece provided a perfect palate cleanser between the heavier string works that dominated the program.

Throughout this charming three-movement work, Kalish employed a delicate yet confident touch to lead the ensemble through a series of elegant and stately themes. The wind players, despite their timbral diversity, presented a unified sense of phrasing and dynamics in their solos and ensemble material alike.

For the finale on this stormy afternoon, the BSO Chamber Players chose Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 60. This quartet is a work of contrasts in which not only does the mood and momentum change from theme to theme, but the roles of the instruments constantly shift.

Throughout the four movements, all four instrumentalists played with a sensitivity to the needs of each musical moment that yet tended to favor the louder passages. While Kalish navigated his turns from foreground to background with precision, he likewise could have used a lighter touch at times

This tendency toward heaviness was most apparent in the Andante’s second theme, a melody of pure sweetness rendered through lively interplay between the strings. The poignancy of this instrumental dialogue skirted the tragic, yet never quite achieved a purity of emotion. In the Finale, the ensemble brought together the romantic mood of the Andante and the momentum of the Scherzo through a contrast between a churning main theme and a more placid secondary theme.

In this movement, the violin clearly took center stage, and Malcolm Lowe played with all the brilliance found in a concerto solo. This further contrast between the heavy activity of the background and the brilliance of the foreground brought the afternoon to a dramatically satisfying conclusion.

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