BSO’s Chamber Players take on Kurtag, Brahms, and Schubert

Inon Barnatan
Boston Globe

By Jeremy Eichler

One of the advantages held by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players is the ensemble’s protean nature, its ability to field a roster of players to accommodate works in almost any conceivable instrumentation. Sunday’s appealing Jordan Hall program brought winds and strings together in various combinations, with only the Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan, a visiting guest, playing in all four works.

By the numbers, the music of Gyorgy Kurtag (b. 1926) made up two of those four works, though they filled only a fraction of the program. This Hungarian master is justly acclaimed for the sense of radical compression in his music, a feeling of vast expressive vistas being boiled down to their essence. In this spirit, Kurtag’s chamber works are often brief in length but potent in impact: sharp modern fragments still glowing with the search for a lost wholeness.

That’s at least the case with “Hommage à R. Sch.’’ and the Bagatelles Op. 14d, both of which received clear, committed performances on Sunday. Barnatan joined clarinetist William R. Hudgins and violist Steven Ansell for the first work, a tribute to Robert Schumann and various aspects of his artistic personality, as refracted through a Kurtagian prism. Five jewel-like movements are capped by a stunning longer movement titled “Abschied,’’ full of half-lit landscapes and a crepuscular calm. A bass drum’s soft thud closes the affair as eerily as it began. Afterward, the Bagatelles revealed a neighboring world of precisely imagined miniatures, this time characterfully rendered by Barnatan, bassist Edwin Barker, and flutist Elizabeth Rowe.

Music’s lofty Romantic past can still be felt in Kurtag’s music, like a kind of sunken city, and after opening on Sunday with the composer’s homage to Schumann, it might have seemed a natural choice to continue the program with some of Schumann’s own chamber music. The BSO players did opt for the Romantic tradition but reached instead for Brahms’s Horn Trio (with Barnatan, violinist Malcolm Lowe, and hornist James Sommerville) and Schubert’s “Trout’’ Quintet (with Barnatan, Lowe, Ansell, Barker, and cellist Jules Eskin). Both received spirited, persuasive readings, with Lowe and Ansell guiding the Schubert into several particularly genial grooves, while Eskin and Barker together provided a notably warm-toned understory. At the keyboard, Barnatan was a lively and alert presence throughout.