Boston Artists Ensemble wrap season with skillful yet imposing Brahms and Chopin

April 30, 2022 at 2:08 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 2 was performed by Boston Artists Ensemble Friday night in Salem.

Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major contains several passages where rhythms overlap in complex patterns, obscuring any sense of fixed meter. When played with verve, the thick textures can resound with a seismic energy.

Yet the Boston Artists Ensemble found a tasteful combination of power and reflection when they offered the celebrated score in their final program of the season Friday night at Salem’s Hamilton Hall.

Viennese audiences who first encountered the quartet in 1862 found it diffuse and hard to grasp. Even Eduard Hanslick, Brahms’s most stalwart supporter, complained that the music was “preparation without objective, promise without fulfillment.”

But such criticism misses the composer’s unique aesthetic. Inspired by Schubert’s example, this music rarely settles in the moment. Themes are in constant motion, evolving into grand statements that only find resolution in the closing bars.

The Boston Artists Ensemble explored every dimension of the expansive work. Throughout, pianist Diane Walsh and the strings found clear direction and momentum. The opening theme went with congenial warmth, while a rougher ensemble tone teased the melancholy from the second theme and a palpable urgency from the development.

But their performance also drew attention to lingering delicacies and bold contrasts. The Adagio was a scene of utmost serenity even as the musicians navigated the abrupt shifts in key. In the Scherzo, the players struck a perfect balance between gentle lilt and storm-tossed angst. Together, they rendered the finale with Magyar swagger.

The evening began with Chopin’s Cello Sonata. The composer toiled over this work for years before publishing it in 1848, a year before his death. The traditional form can barely contain a surging intensity explored by the cello and piano in equal measure.

Friday’s performance featured Walsh and cellist and BAE artistic director Jonathan Miller in a swift yet sensitive reading. Miller’s dusky tone mined the first movement of its brooding turbulence and pensive introspection. Walsh was a firm presence throughout, her arpeggios and cascading figures unfolding with generous rubato. The two avoided the exposition repeat, tightening the reading considerably.

But the music never felt rushed or lacking in dramatic depth. The duo took the Scherzo at a brisk pace while realizing its full sweep and flair; the Trio offered lyrical complement. The Largo glowed with a sweet, almost nocturnal resonance.

Miller and Walsh likewise charted the finale with limpid vitality. Sudden crescendos brought momentary agitation. But the musicians revealed the fleeting humor, grace, and joy that lies just beneath the surface.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline.

Posted in Performances

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