in: Reviews

April 4, 2012

Primary Source Needs More Balance, Cohesion

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Primary Source, the new chamber music concert series at the Goethe-Institut Boston, presented an all-Schubert program on March 30. In an intimate space decorated in a 19th-century manner complete with ornate reliefs, sconces, and dark wood paneling, Drew Massey introduced the program and cautioned that the audience think of the evening’s performance as an “homage” rather than a replication of the Schubertiades of old. Perhaps he felt this disclaimer necessary due to the fact that Primary Source seeks to distinguish itself from a more run-of-the-mill chamber music concert by making rare manuscripts related to the program available for viewing. (I can’t say that perusing the manuscripts made the music any more enlightening than it might have otherwise been, but it certainly provided something to do during intermission).

Pianist Tanya Blaich and tenor Gregory Zavracky began the program with lieder based on poems by Goethe. Auf dem See (On the Lake) opened with a gently rocking piano accompaniment and found Zavracky and Blaich working together to create effective changes of mood via timing and tone color. Blaich’s tender playing and Zavracky’s constrained melodic lines and poignant appogiaturas brought out the mingled joy and sorrow of Erster Verlust (First Loss). Their performance of Der Fischer (The Fisher) emphasized the playful dichotomy of Schubert’s light-hearted strophes and the sinister undertones of the poem. In Nahe des Geliebten (Nearness to the Beloved) the form was again quite static (representing the unchanging nature of the lover’s obsession?); despite the potential dearth of musical material, Zavracky infused the strophes with glowing intensity. Meanwhile, the familiar Die Forelle (The Trout) was sparkling and jaunty with Blaich providing a burbling accompaniment. (This was the only piece not set to a poem by Goethe. The poet was Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart.) While it was precise and articulate,  I couldn’t help but wish for more flow in a piece with a title like “The Trout.”

Violinist Gabriel Boyers, violin, joined pianist Tanya Blaich for the second piece of the evening, the relatively little-played Sonatina in A minor, D. 385. Boyers’s airy, delicate tone would have been exceedingly well-suited to a Faure sonata, but when it came to Schubert I couldn’t help but find it lacking. His approach worked occasionally, but more often than not I felt it insubstantial, especially in comparison to Blaich’s forceful piano playing. The Allegro moderato found the piano almost overpowering the violin. The players seemed to find a better balance in the Andante, with shapely phrases that brought out those singing lines so characteristic of Schubert. In the Menuetto, Boyers added more heft to his sound, playing the forceful opening figure and chromatic runs with zest. Blaich’s nuanced playing in the final Allegro was a pleasure.

Programmers often choose Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major (“the Trout”) as a finale, and for good reason. It’s a jovial and buoyant piece, full of wit and exuberance. (One can easily imagine the 22-year-old Schubert summering in the country amongst good friends and pretty women). Bassist David Goodchild, violist Emily Rome, and cellist Michal Shein joined Boyers and Blaich on stage for this performance, which began with a vigorous albeit questionably-tuned chord. This would not have created cause for remark in and of itself, but it seemed indicative of a larger problem: a distinct lack of cohesion among the players. Chamber music is fundamentally about collaboration, but in this case the musicians functioned like independent entities rather than as a  unified whole. Despite this, there were some engaging moments, like the opening of the Andante, where Rome shone in a richly-hued viola solo. Bassist Goodchild provided an understated, solid presence throughout, while the brilliant Scherzo saw more spirited playing from Boyers.

The Andantino- Allegretto that incorporates the melody from which this work gets its nickname was quite a bit of fun to hear. The third variation in particular had a wonderful jauntiness, and Blaich handled the precipitous passagework superbly, though one might quibble that her playing seemed a bit too mannered and reserved for a movement as raucous and festive as this one. The fifth variation highlighted Shein in a lovely solo.

The Allegro Giusto finds a high-spirited Schubert playing with the audience’s expectations and writing rollicking melodies for the strings and piano. The quintet brought the piece to a close with a flourish that thrilled the audience, proving that even when uneven, Schubert’s crowd-pleaser continues to delight.

Elizabeth Oka is in the process of acquiring as many impractical degrees as she can. She holds a B.A. from Tufts University where she double majored in English and music and is pursuing a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory in viola performance.

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