The Marlboro Music Festival appears only for a handful of public concerts each summer and then vanishes, Brigadoon-like, as its musicians return to their solo careers, ensembles, and schools. To broaden its imprint, the festival created a regular-season touring arm, Musicians From Marlboro, which marshals chamber ensembles of varying size and character composed of festival participants. The program’s 50th-anniversary tour stopped at the Gardner Museum on Sunday.
The configuration for this appearance was string quartet, double bass, oboe, and two horns. It was assembled to play Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K. 251, which occupied the second half of the program. Because most of them were written for entertainment purposes, the divertimenti have largely been snubbed by chamber groups and orchestras alike. If the music doesn’t rank among Mozart’s most profound pronouncements, it is invariably elegant, lyrical, and impeccably crafted. The mischievous wit in the penultimate rondo is perhaps the most notable achievement for the 20-yearold composer. The piece also offered a perfect distillation of Marlboro style: scrupulously prepared and balanced, driven but also spacious. The oboe solos, though brief, were played with plaintive beauty by Mary Lynch.
What else can you play with that lineup, or at least part of it? Beethoven’s Sextet for string quartet and two horns (Op. 81b), for one thing. Despite its high opus number, this is an early work that shows the composer gaining command of Classical-era tools and structures. In contrast to the string-centric Mozart, the sextet is really a small concerto for the horns, for whom the writing is surprisingly virtuosic. The playing, by Wei-Ping Chou and Patrick Pridemore, was superb, especially in their brief, heartfelt duet in the middle movement.
In between came Brahms’s String Quartet in C minor (Op. 51, No. 1). The quartets seem to be no one’s favorite among the composer’s chamber music, least of all this one with its rigorous exterior and tightly coiled melodies. The four string players honored the music’s severity with surprising restraint. The most impressive moments came in the third movement, perched ambiguously between lament and dance, and the finale, which grew to an explosive conclusion. While it’s dangerous to single out one musician from an ensemble that depends on rapport, violinist Itamar Zorman seemed to be the performance’s secret weapon, bestowing soul and depth on everything he touched.