The story goes that Beethoven was thoroughly annoyed at the long-lasting popularity of his Septet for winds and strings from 1800. He was bursting at the seams with much bigger, bolder musical ideas, and people kept harping about the charms of that old lightweight piece of chamber music.
Today, the public is much more interested in that bigger, bolder stuff, but the Septet has hardly lost its appeal. All it takes is a sterling performance to unleash it, as happened Tuesday at Peabody Conservatory, where seven faculty members got together to explore the work.
The players blended seamlessly so that Beethoven's flair for instrumental coloring could be fully appreciated. Those who stepped into the melodic limelight did so without breaking the ensemble's smoothness. Intonation and articulation were almost always sturdy. With the technical details under control, the musicians could concentrate on relishing the notes.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the "Adagio" movement, which some people understandably think of as a precursor to the noble "Adagio" from one of Beethoven's biggest, boldest creations, the Ninth Symphony. The tenderness of the Septet's slow movement is all the more striking because it occurs in a work that is more entertainment than deeply serious composition.
Clarinetist Steven Barta phrased the "Adagio's" theme with his customary silky tone and exceptionally sensitive phrasing (characteristics regularly heard from him as principal clarinetist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra). The tune was treated with similar affection by violinist Martin Beaver as the movement proceeded.
The fourth movement inspired delightful interplay among the musicians; contributions by violist Victoria Chiang and cellist Alan Stepansky had a particularly warm glow. The group achieved remarkable verve and cohesiveness in the finale; Beaver's sound got a little rough around the edges at the end, but the drive and character that he and his colleagues brought to the music proved irresistible. The other participants were bassoonist Philip Kolker, horn player Mary Bisson and bassist Paul Johnson.
Providing a neat balance to the Septet, which closed the program at Friedberg Concert Hall, was a briefer example of diversion - Jean Francaix's 1947 Divertissement for oboe, clarinet and bassoon. It's a concise, spicy, witty score that found Turner, Barta and Kolker in scintillant form.
In between the lighter fare was Schumann's Piano Quartet, Op. 47, one of his most affecting chamber music works. The "Andante cantabile" movement alone exemplifies his indelible lyricism, with an exquisite theme that burrows deep into the ears and, for those listeners who have one, the heart.
Beaver, Chiang and Stepansky were joined by pianist Boris Slutsky in a vivid, firmly integrated performance. If the piano occasionally overpowered the strings, Slutsky's playing was so admirably polished and alive it would be hard to complain. The others were likewise accurate and engaged; Stepansky's solo lines in the "Andante cantabile" were shaped with a melting tone.