On Sunday, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players inverted the course of French nationalism. Not intentionally: Their Jordan Hall concert, an all-French affair, diverged somewhat from the originally-announced program. Jean Françaix's "Dixtour" replaced Ravel's "Introduction and Allegro," and American composer Hannah Lash's "Three Shades without Angles" (which the Players premiered last season) was rescheduled for next year. Instead, it was an afternoon of music epitomizing French polish and craft, while engaging in sometimes thorny negotiations as to what it might mean to sound French.
"Dixtour," from 1986, was largely thorn-free: a late piece from an adherent of prewar French neo-classicism, who arrived at his style early and never wavered. Scored for complementary quintets of strings (violinists Malcolm Lowe and Haldan Martinson, violist Steven Ansell, cellist Jules Eskin, and bassist Edwin Barker) and winds (flutist Elizabeth Rowe, oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William Hudgins, bassoonist Richard Svoboda, and hornist James Sommerville), "Dixtour" serenely burbled, French charm distilled into a clear, limpid eau-de-vie.
The winds were joined by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (the Chamber Players once again giving the week's BSO soloist a chance to moonlight) for Francis Poulenc's 1939 Sextet. Poulenc's early music eagerly exemplified early 20th-century French nationalist virtues of proportion and order, but Romanticism, surrealism, and pietistic austerity found their place as well, confounding Poulenc's insouciant reputation. To characterize the Sextet, as Steven Ledbetter's program note did, as "hardly profound" is to make the puritanical assumption that profundity must be hard; a burly, bracing performance vouched for the Sextet's idiosyncratic sapience. Thibaudet's muscular, percussive sound anchored the ensemble, which sharpened the music's glint to an edge, rendering its drifts in and out of harmonic shadow in Rembrandt-like colors.
Then it was the strings' turn: Lowe, Ansell, and Eskin joined Thibaudet for Gabriel Fauré's C minor Piano Quartet, op. 15, completed in 1880, syntactical elegance packed into concentrated, coursing displays of Romantic warmth. Rather than staking a stylistic claim, or blurring categorical lines, the Quartet instead seemed to unfold its own specific emotional scroll, from the brooding Allegro to a happy, high-wire Scherzo, a stark Adagio, and a voluble, virtuosic struggle-and-triumph finale. Distinctively French? Relatively, no. But there was no denying its éclat.
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
With Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
At: Jordan Hall, Sunday
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.