When it comes to programming, whether old or new, more than a few organizations from Boston’s prolific music scene spring to mind. One, though, stands out for both its significant range of exploration and its continuum over time, and that is the Boston Chamber Music Society. “In the Footsteps of the Romantic Masters” had us glimpsing into a window of history. Who are Bennett and Thomson? We learned they are composers under the spell of Mendelssohn, who recognized them as having something special.
Saturday evening, the BCMS’s Hamel Summer Series at the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, brought history alive. Through the highly readable program notes of Barbara Leish to the highly professional renderings of Jennifer Frautschi, Max Levinson, and Ronald Thomas, most of us found ourselves peering into the past with natural curiosity and bent to compare.
Sir William Sterndale Bennett’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 32 dates from 1852, three years after the death of Mendelssohn. All through the three-movement work Leish’s words describing the music as having “lovely, lyrical melodies” remained in my mind. Cellist Ronald Thomas took to the first of these melodies at the very start of the Adagio sostenuto much like a jazz singer would a Tin Pan Alley tune, shading each and every note deliciously, tastefully. Over the course of the sonata, pianist Max Levinson also found the lovely and lyrical that appears to be Bennett’s gift. What was fast in the sonata most often was relegated to the piano, Levinson always pinpointing articulation that would seize attention.
Going back for more of the Bennett, especially for its naturalness, its kind, gentle temperament and good-sounding features, would, at the very least, be instructive. A summer weekend afternoon, a terrace and this sonata would be a perfect fit, too. Not so the Piano Trio in G minor by Scotsman John Thomson. My less than excited reaction may be due to the fact that the work was composed in 1826 when Thomson was but 21. Chase scenes from silent movies popped into my mind, so did a dining room in an elegant hotel where musicians helped flavor an evening. Usually imitative, more an adoption of the musical language of the day, Thomson’s Trio at times broke out in a surprise run or modulation, but it was the ending that completely surprised.
The organic nature of one of Mendelssohn’s oft-played opuses, Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 49, beams. Mendelssohn wrote it at age 30. His extraordinary gifts, his turning out to be that young Romantic master, would find further credence as a consequence of hearing from his contemporaries Bennett and Thomson. The performance of Jennifer Frautschi, Ronald Thomas, and Max Levinson exploded with energy and power in this master’s masterwork. Frautschi’s brilliantly bright violin contrasted Thomas’ tenor tailored cello sometimes to fine effect and at other times to puzzling outcome. Real impact from the trio’s playing came in the third and fourth movements. Lightness and liveliness progressed forthright in the Scherzo, the trio of musicians quite at home with one another. Where the first movement’s introversion and extroversion verged on expected enunciation, the Finale’s shifting dispositions again opened up, allowing enough spontaneity that would inject the personal along with the professional to stir the emotion, that Romantic fervor. BCMS’s decidedly listenable Andante often demurred on the personal.
Edification, history, and high-standard music-making were certainly the stuff of this BCMS offering. And, by the way, not a word was delivered from the stage, not a word from Marcus Thompson, Artistic Director or anyone else! Finally, all three compositions on the program had Max Levinson playing non-stop, he being the backbone, as it were. No letup from him was one thing to admire, another was his astuteness, as was the sheer magnetism of his touch. He made most of the Yamaha C-7, which incidentally, was even, colorful and balanced in ways that the Steinway B used last year was not.
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