It is something to imagine Beethoven in his early forties at the piano in a Viennese hotel where he was giving the first public performance of his “Archduke Trio”: “In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted” wrote an unsympathetic Louis Spohr, the composer and violinist.
It is something else to hear on recording Shostakovich himself, in his mid thirties, performing his own new piano quintet at the Moscow Conservatory. Then, soon after, Time magazine had “Fireman Shostakovich,” Communist propagandist, on the cover of its issue of July 20, 1942.
There is always the fascination of listening to these much-loved pieces, wondering all the while whether or not they might be revealing something deep-rooted in their creators’ lives, states of minds, feelings-something. And just what might these interpreters, the highly praised members of the Boston Chamber Music Society, bring to light in their concert on February 22 at Sanders Theater in Cambridge?
Before digging into these big works, Harumi Rhodes, violin and Mark Holloway, viola, opened the program on a lighter note with Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, K. 423. Wonderfully sweet, tender moments arose in the slow middle movement. High performance art again continued in the third and final movement. Overall it was finely tuned and professionally polished, but how much more enjoyment could there have been had the two looked at each other, showed us the communicative joy of so much music-making between two stringed instruments?
Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 alludes to Baroque counterpoint and bass lines (basso continuo) as well as types of pieces from that era, the prelude and fugue in particular. But harmonic and melodic twists peculiar to Shostakovich, often coming when least expected, mix with these more conventional sounds. This mash-up might suggest an ambivalence for the Soviet line. And here too, seriousness cavorts with childlike play. Just what might have Shostakovich been feeling?
Violinists Ida Levin and Harumi Rhodes, violist Mark Holloway, cellist Ronald Thomas, and pianist Randall Hodgkinson reached out and made contact, helping us feel this ambivalence. By the third movement there was no denying the power these interpreters held, especially Levin and Hodgkinson. Both kept sparking the quintet, Levin through intense emotion and Hodgkinson through deep conviction.
The Intermezzo found more breathing room, more simplicity, more contemplation. Levin’s playing was positively beautiful. And the Finale seemed to take all this still further by ending ever so lightly. A quiet laugh from the audience preceded a barrage of applause and bravos in recognition of the interpreter’s art.
With the Levin-Thomas-Hodgkinson impassioned “Archduke Trio” came a different mix, this one alternating performance art with human expression. The loud entrance of the strings over the piano at the beginning of the trio is certainly attention-grabbing. On the repeat of the opening bars with less volume, this same passage becomes a call, or appeal.
However, there was so much attention to detail that one felt the overall flow of the piece was somewhat hindered. There was less natural delivery than had been shown in the Schostakovich.
Sometimes moving, sometimes predictable were the contrasts, buildups to climaxes, and other shifts that make for Beethovenian drama. Those mysterious little journeys in the Scherzo at times were right on. And the last two minutes of this movement shed all previous obstacles to achieve personal expression.
The beautifully serene slow third movement opened, nobly, sensitively and in a simple, contained space. However, serene spaces gave way to a concentration on the complexities of the Trio that brought on listener fatigue. So many details, so many contrasts…
On Sunday night, the spirit of Shostakovich inhabited Sanders Theatre through the power of the Boston Music Chamber Society. Mozart and Beethoven never noticeably fell short of high performance art.