Elliott Carter’s music had already been scheduled for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players season opener when the composer died on Nov. 5 at 103; Sunday’s concert at Jordan Hall turned from salute to eulogy. It was a lively memorial, though, putting two of Carter's works in company complementing his penchant for bristling musical confabulation. The afternoon was a reminder that discord, too, can be a musical virtue.
Thomas Adès and Kirill Gerstein, conductor and piano soloist for the past week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, opened with Beethoven’s four-hand-piano version of his “Grosse Fuge” ( Op. 134), an unruly gathering of harmonies and moods just barely held together by the form’s imitative process. Beethoven’s arrangement physically manifests the friction, the players forever intertwining their hands like a demonic cat’s cradle. The interpretation also had feline aspects, with Adès and Gerstein pouncing on accents and dissonances. The fiercest sections, obstreperous screens of counterpoint, were vehement but oddly diffuse, not quite locking in. But when the fugue was at its jauntiest, the pair’s rhythm came into sharp focus, honing the humor to a dangerous edge.
The program distilled Carter’s manifold style by contrasting new and old. Edwin Barker gave a brisk, confident account of the 2007 bass solo “Figment III,” the instrument arguing with itself across ranges and techniques: brusque chatter, lofty lyricism, thumping pizzicato. The 1948 Woodwind Quintet, by contrast, is bright, tonal neoclassicism. But rimed by “Figment III,” characteristic Carter disputations could still be heard, the counterpoint arranged so that the instruments never quite coalesce, the players all on the same syncopated grid but only rarely on the same page. (Elizabeth Rowe, John Ferillo, William Hudgins, Richard Svoboda, and James Sommerville were precise and sprightly conversationalists.)
Then came an imposing conference, Brahms’s Op. 34 Piano Quintet. Gerstein seamlessly joined violinists Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violist Steven Ansell, and cellist Jules Eskin for a thoroughly excellent rendition, expansive and adept, its musical size as much a function of well-placed space and contrast as sheer volume.
The Piano Quintet is Brahms at both his most fraught and his most grandly formal. The performance had something of both aspects, passages of driving intensity leading into judiciously balanced phrases and structures, Brahms reenacting a debate as nobly eloquent theater. It made for one more opposition: Beethoven and Carter’s celebration of musical contention, Brahms’s catharsis of symmetry and resolution.