Between the two performances of Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” on Thursday and Saturday, music director Christoph Eschenbach gave his singers and most of the National Symphony Orchestra a break on Friday night. Instead, nine principal players from the NSO joined Eschenbach for a recital of Beethoven’s chamber music. Such “B-side” concerts inserted between performances of a larger choral work were one of the notable successes of the Kennedy Center’s Music of Prague, Budapest, and Vienna festival last year, and a large audience turned out in the Concert Hall.
The contrast of this program with the “Missa Solemnis” could not have been greater, featuring small pieces of chamber music from Beethoven’s early career instead of the massive religious statement of his final years. These musicians regularly play chamber music with one another, as members of the Kennedy Center Chamber Players, with the addition of the excellent Laurel Bennert Ohlson, who was moved up to acting principal horn this season. The high point of the concert was the Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, Op. 16, which contrasted forthright wind statements — at times evoking an outdoor band anchored by Ohlson’s boisterous horn — with some suave introductions of themes by Eschenbach at the keyboard. The players worked together with admirable sensitivity to tease out the work’s more elusive beauties.