The Chamber Ensemble is culled from the ranks of the larger Academy, a chamber orchestra founded in 1959 with a distinguished discography. The Chamber Ensemble, formed in 1967, gives some hints as to the larger group’s success, following each other with uncanny precision, reliable intonation and a full, rich tone.
The Concertina for String Octet, op. 47, by English composer and conductor Eugene Goossens, was straight out of the English pastoral school, all pretty melodies and only a little rhythmic interest. It’s an ingratiating work that doesn’t ask too much of its listeners, and that’s OK for an opener. This was also the first we heard of the stunningly sweet tone of violist Robert Smissen, a sensitive, thoughtful musician.
Brahms String Sextet No. 2, op. 36 was next, featuring Brahms in his happy-yet-wistful mood, in places as unabashedly smiling as R.E.M.’s “Stand” and resigned as Travis’ “Why Does It Always Rain on Me.” The four-movement work begins with a somewhat happy tune, and by the end of it all is well. The Chamber Ensemble slightly altered the time here and there and made child’s play of the difficult hand-offs of the tune in the finale.
Dvorak’s String Sextet, op. 48 followed after intermission, another of Dvorak’s Brahmsian works with Czech melodies injected right into it. The odd five-measure phrases in the second movement Dumka smiled quizzically, and the dazzling Finale banged through its conclusion. There was audible audience dissension when the group’s leader, violinist Kenneth Sillito, announced that they usually play Mendelssohn’s Octet and then the Shostakovich as an encore.
An evening of being comforted by the Romantics ends up a meal of empty calories, to me, at least, so I was pleased to hear them tear into Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet, op. 11 from 1925 with such ferocity. What can you do but praise a composer whose work still shocks 79 years after its composition? From the ghostly muted trio of high violins accompanying a lone viola to the stabbing duo of screeching violins, the Chamber Ensemble ripped through this early work by Shostakovich with unbridled menace.