Like a comfortable old chair or a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day, there is nothing quite as satisfying as an evening of good old-fashioned chamber music, and the Boston Chamber Music Society provided plenty of satisfaction in their concert at Sanders Theater last Sunday, May 17. The program began with the Haydn Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano in G major, Hob. XV:15, performed with energy and commitment by flutist Fenwick Smith, cellist Wilhelmina Smith and pianist Mihae Lee. It was expertly played, as one would expect from such fine artists, but the stylistic approach was more 19th-century sturm und drang than 18th-century classical elegance and lightness, and this little masterpiece almost broke under the weight.
Beethoven’s well-known “ghost” Piano Trio in D major, op. 70, no. 1 closed the first half. The nickname “ghost” refers to the supposedly spooky character of the second movement, but this is a misnomer for several reasons. One is historical. Like “Moonlight” and “Pathetique,” Beethoven never used the term “ghost” for this or any work. Another is musical: the reason this movement has sounded so disembodied and gaseous is that it began to be played much too slowly shortly after Beethoven’s death, and a tradition (and subtitle) were born. Happily, this was not the case with the performance of Mss. Lee, Smith and violinist Ida Levin. Their tempo, which underscored the harmonic rhythm of the movement without losing any of its expressivity, was ideal, and the entire work came across as refreshing and exciting.
The highlight of the concert was the Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, op. 25, magnificently performed by Levin, Smith, Lee and violist Marcus Thompson (the new director of the BCMS). When Brahms moved to Vienna from Hamburg in 1862, at the urging of Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim, he came armed with three of his greatest compositions: this quartet, the A-major Piano Quartet (op. 25 and 26) and the Handel Variations (op. 24). The Viennese welcomed the 29-year-old composer with open arms, particularly because they viewed him as a representative of the great chamber music tradition of their departed heroes Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Indeed, the Viennese seemed to be living in the past when Brahms arrived, as he noted with some amazement in a letter of 1863: “one has the sensation [in Vienna] that Schubert [who died in 1828] is still alive! One keeps meeting new people who speak of him as a close acquaintance.”
The first performance of the G-minor quartet in Vienna on November 16, 1862 created a sensation, especially the Gypsy finale. Max Kalbeck, Brahms’ first biographer, said: “the most appeal and the strongest applause came from the Hungarian finale of the quartet; and the fact the during its performance the cellist knocked over and cracked the bridge of his instrument hurt nothing of its appeal.” Another biographer, Ivor Keys, wrote of the finale that “It was obviously designed to bring the house down, and it did.” The same thing happened at Sanders Theater in 2009.