Friday’s chamber music concert in Jordan Hall made plenty of musical points, but also a few extra-musical ones. For starters, Boston audiences don’t get to hear enough from Marc-Andre Hamelin, a pianist of international standing who lives in the Boston area. Somehow reinforcing this point was his appearance on Friday’s program, essentially as a visiting artist in his own city.
Hamelin is making a North American tour with the venerable Takács Quartet, presented this weekend by the Celebrity Series of Boston. At least the happy occasion for this assemblage of chamber musicians was Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, a dazzling blockbuster of a piece that doesn’t get performed as often as one might expect.
The work announces itself with a lapel-grabbing first movement, full of crashing piano chords and surging string lines. But this five-movement piece also contains long stretches of effusively melodic writing, and rarely crosses into that more harrowing emotional register — the terror of the hunted — that one encounters in some of the composer’s best-known string quartets. The Piano Quintet in many ways is a warmly backward-looking score, gesturing toward Bach in the opening Prelude and Fugue, and perhaps simultaneously toward Schumann. But the music sounds in the end like nobody but Shostakovich.
The Takács and Hamelin on Friday gave it a rewardingly feisty account. The Prelude leapt off the stage, as it must; the Fugue was duly probing, the Scherzo dancing with an earthy abandon. Violinist Edward Dusinberre and violist Geraldine Walther spun out the gorgeous melodies of the Intermezzo in beautiful, long-breathing lines over cellist Andras Fejer’s simple pizzicato accompaniment. Hamelin’s playing was pointed and steely where required, elegantly cool at other moments. One sensed that the parties on stage were challenged to bridge certain native differences in musical temperament but they did so artfully. The piece landed with real impact in the hall, and earned a vigorous ovation.
The evening’s first half had no egregious issues, but did not really catch fire as one might have hoped. Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet was expertly played, if perhaps missing that final measure of lidded intensity that this ensemble has brought to Schubert quartets in the past. And the playing in the opening Haydn Quartet (Op. 76, No. 5) was again unflaggingly expert, yet also felt slightly more decorous than inspired. Applause was polite. There was a lingering sense that the real event on this program was not taking place until after intermission.
It’s worth pointing out that it did not have to be this way. The Takács Quartet and Hamelin are touring the Shostakovich widely this fall, but in every other city, the first half of the program includes a string quartet by Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich’s close musical friend. Britten’s quartets are fascinating gems, heard far too rarely, especially at the level of distinction that the Takács brings to just about everything it touches. But evidently, Boston audiences were not deemed sophisticated or adventurous enough to show up, in sufficient numbers, for a modern-leaning program of this variety. A different call was made when the group was booked in Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Toronto, Gainesville, Fla., and Pittsburgh.
In fact it happens not infrequently that the Celebrity Series will bring international artists to town with a watered-down version of what they are touring in other cities. The questions arise: Is this organization, which is clearly so essential to the local musical ecosystem, simply being grimly realistic about the limits of Boston’s musical tastes, or is it underestimating the appetites of its own potential audiences? Or is it hamstrung by its choice of venues?
Perhaps it has been chastened by the experience of presenting world-class artists in half-empty halls. Still, when a group as estimable as the Takács decides it has something to say about the Britten quartets, Boston audiences should be given the chance to hear it. These programming negotiations between artists and presenters can be complex, and often play an organization’s short-term fiscal needs against its long-term artistic health. But fundamentally, if presenters in all of those other cities are finding ways to offer the more distinctive and ambitious version of a touring program, you start to wonder what, locally, is really going on.