in: Reviews

August 9, 2009

Old Works Provide Brave Program from BCMS

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There are thrills and there are dangers to performing well-known works to a house packed full of professionals and aficionados: the thrill of delighting, the danger of disappointing; the thrill of breathing new interpretive life into a warhorse, the danger of that breath falling short and killing the horse instead.  For all the bravery often ascribed presenters of new and obscure works, it is they who present the “tried and true” who are, in a way, truly courageous, since the bright spotlights of tradition and expectation shine glaringly on every note.

The Boston Chamber Music Society’s Hamel Concert Series began its run on August 8th at Longy’s Pickman Hall with a program that was indeed brave in this respect. The result was an enjoyable concert of the familiar that afforded modest thrills, some delightful surprises, and only a few un-managed dangers.

The program opened with pianist Pedja Muzijevic performing F. J. Haydn’s Piano Sonata in G major (1766). Like most early Haydn, it is a work of youthful wit and clever technique, with spring in its step. Some of that spring was dampened, however, by Muzijevic’s technical approach. It seemed to reflect a concession to the Steinway grand he was playing, resulting in a somewhat anachronistic Romantic touch to the music. At times, though, he used that touch to his advantage, creating some subtle and lovely sonic nuances, especially in the Trio of the second movement. But what was most impressive — indeed thrilling — about Muzijevic’s performance was what he did that was stylistically appropriate: he ornamented. Larger sections, such as the exposition of the first movement or the Minuet of the second movement, were, upon their structurally mandated returns, decorated by the pianist with delightful turns and trills, clever rhythmic variances, and even a couple of improvised transitions. It is a skill that so few pianists seem to have these days, which makes it all the more delightful and satisfying to hear, especially when done well.

Following the Haydn, Muzijevic was joined by violinist Arnaud Sussmann for the Violin Sonata in A major, Op. 100 by Johannes Brahms (1886). One of the dangers in Brahms’s music is the stratified phrasing that inhabits much of his large-scale works. Small, nearly fragmented phrases often appear in the foreground, and unless the performers bind them together using the larger, sweeping background phrases that hold them in place, they can come off as being somewhat nonsensical. This is certainly the case in the outer movements of this sonata; and, while Sussmann and Muzijevic engaged the micro-phrasing with great skill, the macro-phrasing never really got off the ground, giving the entire performance a bit of a disjointed feel.  On the other hand, the fact that they did focus their interpretive energies on the small phrases allowed them to toss these musical gestures back and forth with an ease that gave especially the first movement an unexpectedly delightful air of conversational informality, something that Brahms no doubt would have appreciated.

For the final piece on the program, Sussmann and Muzijevic were joined by cellist Julie Albers for a rousing performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio in D-minor, Op. 63 (1847). And what made Brahms’s music stumble in the sonata made Schumann’s music fly in the trio. The fitfully energetic short-term phrasing that the players brought to the fast movements of this work gave it the heightened sense of agitated angst that propels this music forward. And if Albers often had projection issues when she needed to sing out, her ability to blend so sensitively with the piano created some eerily rich sonorities, especially in the third movement. In fact, all three performers brought so much innige Empfindung to this movement that it provided the richest and loveliest moments of the entire program.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

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