in: Reviews

February 27, 2017

BCMS: Trembling Most Satisfactory

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Alexi Kenney played Joachim Strad (file photo)

Chamber works of Haydn, Schubert, and Brahms (no Kurtag or anything like it) at 3pm on a weekend may not sound like the most adventurous of musical events. Then place the show in an acoustically unsupportive setting with noisy HVAC, and it looks even less promising. But the Boston Chamber Music Society invariably gives good value and offers truly good work, and has for 35 years. This performance Sunday afternoon in the Fitzgerald Theater at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School was—piece by well-known piece, movement by pleasing movement—so musically satisfying that I would gladly sit through it again. The BCMS theme was Gemütlichkeit: publicly genial coziness, with everything nominally in G major.

An arrangement for string trio of a Haydn keyboard sonata opened. The two-movement work may not exactly have been prepared by the 52-year-old master, but no matter: the characteristic charm utterly engrossed, first in the long “innocent” Allegretto and in the short Presto even moreso. Stutter-steps and similar slyness made it clear whose mind at play this was. Violinist Alexi Kenney (playing a luscious 1714 Strad, lent with NEC support, which Joachim had employed for the Brahms Violin Concerto’s 1879 premiere), BCMS founder violist Marcus Thompson, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan dispatched the Haydn with delicate perfection.

The Fitzgerald proved more acceptable for chamber music than it had any right to be, though I doubt many groups will seek it out. The corrugated sidewalls may well scatter lateral reflections, but they are wide apart to begin with, and flare. The ceiling is very high and the large curtain behind the performers thick. The bare floor at the bottom of the venue, where the performers sat, provides the only early reflection. The constantly loud air-handler aside, the music did sound direct, dry, and clear.

The last of Schubert’s final three string quartets, the G major, has become a chamber staple. It gets no less disturbing with repeated hearing. (It must have sounded like Carter in the day.) The composer’s helpless, otherworldly hearing of sounds, major-minor and back, and back again, combines cries and whispers, their sadness irregularly tremulous. Up and down we go, outbursts, then anguished tremors, and repeat. Aspiring joy, then fears, and repeat with more ache. Each movement involves the contrast approach, and each strangely seems, as we hear the work unfold, to recall the others. Violinist Yura Lee joined Kenney, and Dimitri Murrath and Gabriel Cabezas were violist and cellist. Exceptional chamber musicians, aces every one, their playing expert, if a touch individually discrete. Did it feel ever so slightly undercooked at moments? Perhaps. And Lee’s phrasing may not always have the full measure of amiability.

Altogether, the torturous traversal—Schubert’s writing is brutal on the violinists’ hands—from loud cloudiness to quiet sun, then from quietly dancing cloudiness to agitated sun, whether grand ensemble or individual comments and sighs, passed with high exactitude, trembling to a comparatively weak end. (Specifically mentioning this quartet, Michael Steinberg pointed out that Beethoven’s great resolving finales posed an unsettling problem for everyone afterward, that even in late miraculous works Schubert was not always able to “match earlier movements with finales of comparable concentration and intensity”.)

The second half featured all six musicians in the Brahms Sextet No. 2, from 1865. It too trembles, starting with viola vibrato, beginning another masterly chapter in the 32-year-old’s renounced romantic life (compare and contrast wistfulness in Brahms and Schubert). I’ve never heard Thompson play with more nobility. The movement sings smoothly, seemingly endlessly, with a different kind of mounting joy toward sadness. As led by Kenney, the performance continued the x-ray clarity partly due to locale; you could practically notate passages if sitting close. The band reached real lilt, their rhythms breathless in the long first Allegro. The Scherzo was non-creamy, different from the way so many groups do it, but everyone passed around his or her dejected plucks in tremendous unison, with Ramakrishnan and Cabezas standing out. The Adagio features more gorgeous mourning, chockablock with yearning duets, eventually coursing toward an ecstatically elegiac ending. The last movement may never before have been rendered with more Mendelssohnian luminosity, with Kenney and Lee standing out and Murrath newly vital.

The workmanship of the Boston Chamber Music Society may not be as immaculately oiled as with certain other groups, but I somehow find their concerts more instructive.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

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