"We take pride in delving into the chamber music literature," said Emil George, the Fessenden Ensemble's founder, artistic director and horn player, before the concert at St. Columba's Episcopal Church on Tuesday. In keeping with that mission, the ensemble presented nearly unknown septets by moderately well-known romantic composers Max Bruch and Louis Spohr for the first concert of its fifth season.
Bruch's septet, for two violins, cello, double bass, clarinet, horn and bassoon, dates from the composer's earlier years but was discovered only recently. While its first two movements don't break much new ground, invigorating syncopations whiz merrily around the ensemble in the scherzo, and the finale generates surprising force using a four-note motif drawn from its main theme. The Fessenden players relished the verve and charm of the young Bruch's work, and first violinist John Hughes's elan in the occasional concertante passages brought to mind the violin concertos for which the mature Bruch became famous.
Spohr wrote his septet for the unusual combination of violin, cello, flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano, and Tuesday's performance demonstrated why this combination remains unusual. The instruments never quite blended in unison passages, and melodies in the violin were often accompanied by relatively static wind music, a more active cello line and elaborate filigree from the piano, leading to sonic confusion. A musical argument lay somewhere amid the battling timbres, but Spohr's invention usually didn't merit the effort to find it. Still, the Bruch was a treat, and the Fessenden Ensemble should be commended for its enterprise in bringing these seldom-heard works to Washington's ears.
-- Andrew Lindemann Malone