Sunday afternoon, a collaborative program with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and the Gewandhaus-Quartett of Leipzig proved (if it needed proving) that the trans-Atlantic creative alliance between their two parent orchestras does not start and end with their soon-to-be-shared musical head honcho, Andris Nelsons. Whole sections of seats may have been empty at Symphony Hall, but the music on stage was full of life.
The program was the final event in the “Leipzig Week in Boston” festivities, which also included lectures, lieder, and a BSO concert that both celebrated Leipzig’s musical heritage and gave a young composer a world premiere. The violinists of the regular Gewandhaus-Quartett were present for this program, with guests Anton Jivaev (viola) and Jürnjakob Timm (cello) completing the foursome. The Germans opened the program with a cool rendition of Haydn’s String Quartet in D, Op. 64, No. 5, known as “The Lark” for the initial movement’s high-flying first violin line, which was beautifully expressed by Gewandhaus Orchestra concertmaster Frank-Michael Erben.
For the first two movements, it seemed a kind of Platonic ideal of the classical-period string quartet. Every gesture was measured and deliberate, not a single sound out of place, and there wasn’t much to do but marvel at its perfection. The players added some snap and bite in the third movement, breaking the spell, and I was glad. Platonic ideals are boring. The breakneck Presto was one to remember, propelled by carefully contained fire.
The Boston Symphony Chamber Players then took the stage for Ligeti’s clever “Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet,” which was also performed last month, at Jordan Hall. The players inhabited the complex work’s casual virtuosity; they created sonic scenes of a mad chase in twittering winds and thumping bassoon, and a visceral cry in a rending horn blast.
The Leipzig strings and the Boston winds came together at last for the final piece before intermission, Lukas Foss’s “For Aaron.” The titular “Aaron” was the composer’s longtime friend Aaron Copland, and the piece did have the same notes of sweetness and innocence that characterizes such works as “Appalachian Spring.” Energetic fiddle-tune-like melodies swooned into open-hearted dreamy interludes under the baton of BSO assistant conductor Moritz Gnann.
Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat was center stage in the second half, with the Gewandhaus-Quartett, Steven Ansell of the Chamber Players, and three BSO section guests. Erben again led the first-violin charge through the wild thickets of buzzing strings. The piece was full of heady vitality; Mendelssohn wrote it at the age of 16, and the players telegraphed that youthful anything-is-possible spirit. BSO cellist Sato Knudsen took off into the final movement as if fired from a gun, and the rest sustained that spirit through the driving fugue and puissant march that followed. After being pulled through that vortex of energy, a spring in the step while walking out was almost inevitable.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.