LENOX — What was the glue that held this Tanglewood program together?
Five disparate musicians played five disparate pieces Wednesday night in an Ozawa Hall program so light and short that it seemed as much serenade as concert.
The connection wasn't Mozart, though two easy-listening pieces of his were among the five. It wasn't French music, though pieces by Saint-Saëns and Debussy were on the bill. It wasn't pianist Emanuel Ax, who played in only two pieces (but probably helped to attract the extra-large audience).
It didn't take long — no longer than the opening number, the Saint-Saëns Oboe Sonata — to solve the puzzle. The answer: French oboist François Leleux, who cast himself prominently in four pieces, and whose wife, violinist Lisa Batiashvili, played the fifth. And when he was playing, he was unmistakably the force majeure, the star of the show.
Leleux is a virtuoso, no doubt about it. He produces a broad, rich tone — no nasal oboe whine for him – that at times takes on a hint of flute or trumpet. Cascades of notes spin off in infinite variety. He spins on his chair with them. He recalls the great oboist Heinz Holliger, but with Gallic joie de vivre.
Except for Debussy's Violin Sonata, which teamed Batiashvili and Ax, the program made few demands on the ears.
In the sweetly melodic Saint-Saëns sonata, Ax anchored Leleux's flights into the stratosphere in the ornamental oboe part. Leleux and Batiashvili traded off melodies and jokes in Leleux's transcriptions of three arias from Mozart's "Magic Flute." If you ever wanted to laugh at a silly Queen of the Night, here was your chance.
Britten's "Phantasy" Quartet, a student work, treats the oboe as a solo instrument against a rather crabbed ensemble of violin, viola (here, Kim Kashkashian) and cello (Lynn Harrell), and so it came across. Less fittingly, the same forces also brought the oboe into concerto-like prominence in Mozart's Oboe Quartet.
Debussy's Violin Sonata was his final work. It is at an opposite pole from the all-charm Saint-Saens oboe sonata – tough, jumpy, almost manic. No "Afternoon of a Faun" here. Batiashvili and Ax went to all the strange places to compelling effect. Tragedy lay behind those clashing notes.