The Chicago Symphony’s streamed offerings have turned to the chamber literature, affording viewers the opportunity to zoom in on the considerable talents of the ensemble’s individual members. This week’s program paired works by Mozart and Brahms, showcasing the Chicago winds and strings respectively. While chamber music may be rather more Covid-compliant than a Mahler symphony, there lies something of a contradiction in that it is a medium that demands closeness and conversation. Nonetheless, these musicians presented performances of nuanced communication, unhindered by being seated in a socially-distanced semi-circle.

James Smelser and David Cooper
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Mozart’s Serenade no. 12 in C minor K388 must have meant a great deal to him as he would go on to recast the entire work for string quintet (K406), and repurpose the second movement’s principal theme in Così fan tutte. In its original incarnation, the work is scored for wind octet comprised of pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns. While most of the composer’s serenades are light-hearted affairs, the minor key of the present work gives it a markedly more tragic demeanor. Despite such hues of darkness, a theme in the major offered sunny contrast early on, lifted by the natural buoyancy of the winds.

Oboist William Welter led the way with a delicately ornamented melodic line; clarinetist Stephen Williamson served as a standout as well. The octet maintained a deft balance even as textures thickened, underpinned by rapid filigree in the bassoons. It’s not hard to see why Mozart saw operatic potential in the Andante with its mellifluous blend of winds inimitably songful. Cast as a canon, the Menuetto displayed the composer’s contrapuntal sophistication and the ensemble’s exacting clarity, and the theme and variations structure of the finale propelled matters inexorably to the finish line.

Robert Chen, Stephanie Jeong, John Sharp, Kenneth Olsen, Li-Kuo Chang, Danny Lai
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Clocking in at 40 minutes, Brahms’ String Sextet no. 2 in G major is certainly symphonic in scope. In his spoken introduction, violist Danny Lai relayed that Brahms completed much of the work’s composition near Baden-Baden, and the opening gesture for viola alone recalls the babbling brooks he would have encountered there. The first movement was spacious in its pacing and gracious in its lyricism, guided with purpose by concertmaster Robert Chen. A rich and burnished tone was achieved, further encouraged by principal cello John Sharp.

The subsequent Scherzo was moderately paced, unusually introspective for such a movement so as to never wander far from the work’s lyrical core, although a central Presto giocoso provided some sprightlier contrast in its Ländler-inspired inflections. The Adagio was a lovely paragraph of repose – with gentle pizzicato passages in the inner voices particularly affecting – while the finale offered the work’s most spirited moments, further evidencing the ensemble’s ability to communicate in taut cohesion.

This performance was reviewed from the CSO video stream