Aston Magna is on the move this summer. At least temporally speaking.
“Winds of Romanticism” was the title of Thursday night’s program at Brandeis’s Slosberg Auditorium. After having pitched its tent a week earlier in a familiar clearing — that is, on a stretch of 18th-century terrain shadowed by the mountain of Bach — this venerable early music festival promptly packed a small bag and headed out for a day-hike. There, just beyond the ridge, lay beckoning an exotic landscape: the 19th century.
All right, in truth, period-instrument excursions into Romantic repertoire are hardly exotic anymore, but they are still not exactly commonplace. And so, while Aston Magna’s program pairing works by Brahms and Mendelssohn would scarcely stand out at a typical summer chamber music festival, it still carried here a whiff of adventure. Most enticing of all was the chance to hear Brahms’s sublime Clarinet Quintet with a period clarinet the composer himself would have recognized.
The players naturally saved the Brahms for last and opened with a rarity, an amiable if unassuming Divertimento for oboe and strings by Finnish composer Bernhard Crusell (1775-1838). The piece’s florid solo lines put Stephen Hammer’s fine oboe playing in the spotlight while also giving his period instrument what appeared to be a taxing workout. Next came Mendelssohn’s A-minor Quartet (Op. 13), a work of youthful passion with a chorale-like opening and a finale that pays homage to Beethoven’s own celebrated A-minor Quartet (Op. 132). The performers — Daniel Stepner and Julie Leven (violins), David Miller (viola), Guy Fishman (cello) — delivered an account sensitive to the outer movements’ Sturm und Drang as well as the lighter charms of its Intermezzo.
By 1891, Brahms’s own composing career might well have begun drawing to a close if not for his reencounter with the clarinet playing of Richard Mühlfeld, a soloist he considered unsurpassed, and whom he called “the nightingale of the orchestra.” The composer was inspired to create several remarkable works including his Clarinet Quintet (Op. 115), and he did so with Mühlfeld’s sound in mind. The piece is a work unique in the chamber music literature for its particular inner glow, a blending of mellow warmth, wistful beauty, and a sense of wisdom that is inseparable from the lateness of the hour.
Of course reproducing Mühlfeld’s performance style — the actual sound Brahms had in his ears — remains an exercise in speculation, but one can at least stack the deck by choosing an instrument both men would have known. It was a distinct pleasure, in that spirit, to hear Eric Hoeprich performing Thursday on a 19th-century boxwood clarinet similar to Mühlfeld’s own. He even used a second instrument, a B-flat clarinet, for a brief passage in the Adagio, in a nod to Mühlfeld’s own performance practice in this work. Hoeprich’s tone was light and crystalline, and despite an occasional thickening of string textures, the defining characteristic of Thursday’s account was a limpid grace, a refreshing preference for songfulness above nostalgia.
The festival continues this week with a return to 17th-century home turf, in a program of works by Purcell, Dowland, and others.