From Russia with musical savoir faire
Having surveyed the music of Eastern Europe and Vienna in the first two concerts of their travelogue season, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players turned to Russia on Sunday. In the process, they evoked a very Russian state of mind, described by Leo Tolstoy as “the unfortunate capacity many men, especially Russians, have of seeing and believing in the possibility of goodness and truth, but of seeing the evil and falsehood of life too clearly to be able to take a serious part in it.’’ Such a capacity has encouraged high-minded escape into mysticism or cynicism (in the ancient philosophical sense) or both.
That mood was summoned by Sofia Gubaidulina’s 1987 “Hommage à T. S. Eliot,’’ a 40-minute ritual for soprano and eight players, in an excellent performance conducted by Gil Rose. Instruments enter in formation: strings (violinists Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violist Steven Ansell, cellist Jules Eskin, and bassist Edwin Barker), mixing axe-sharp accents and ephemeral harmonics; then winds (clarinetist William Hudgins, bassoonist Richard Svoboda, and hornist James Sommerville), offering a grim fanfare; then the soprano (Jessica Rivera, mesmerizing and oracular), singing fragments from “Four Quartets,’’ Eliot’s lushly monastic ode of resignation.
The sharp, potent instrumental sounds - all the polish polished away - combined into a deep keening, like the epic creaking of ice breaking up in the spring, hope and destruction inseparably entwined. The physicality of the vocal writing emphasizes the effort of separating sound from silence; even Eliot’s famous benedictory homage to Julian of Norwich (“all manner of thing shall be well’’) had only a halting insistence. The whole had an uncompromising, confrontational asceticism.
The rest of the program balanced Gubaidulina’s harsh light with warmer glows of Russian folk melodies, always coyly slipping between major and minor. Flutist Elizabeth Rowe and oboist John Ferrillo joined Hudgins, Svoboda, and Sommerville in Anatoly Liadov’s “Eight Russian Folksongs,’’ with perfectly enunciated counterpoint layered into the smooth churn of 19th-century harmony. Rivera returned, with Ferrillo, Hudgins, Svoboda, and Robert Sheena’s English horn, for Igor Stravinsky’s “Pastorale,’’ a polished, brief (enough to warrant a repeat performance) diversion, those major-minor inflections suggesting rather art nouveau nymphs and shepherds.
The five strings finished with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, an impeccable display of musical savoir faire punctuated with a folk-tinged finale. The full BSO string section had played the Serenade back in January; this performance, big-boned and bold, seemed to be doing its best to re-create that scale.