in: Reviews

March 30, 2010

None Dare Call It Juvenilia: BCMS at Sanders

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The Boston Chamber Music Society performed on March 28 at Sanders Theater an intriguing, if somewhat misleadingly portrayed, survey of early works by composers whose mature—or at least most familiar—idioms were in most cases quite different from these efforts. Billed in some of its advertising as “early works by Viennese masters,” it wasn’t quite that: as one Münchner fumed, “Richard Strauss was not Viennese!” So there. Be that as it may,  the program of large and brought to mind some performances earlier this season (by others) of the Bartók piano quintet, to which we will advert later, and with which some of these works evoke a similar “I knew you when” smile.

The program began with the now quite familiar Mahler Piano Quartet in A minor—or rather, the first movement of what would have been, had Mahler not gotten bored with the enterprise of writing it and broken off after a few bars of the scherzo. This was a true student piece, done when the composer was 17 or so, and is rightly becoming a mainstay of student ensembles. It is melodically luxuriant, harmonically indebted to Brahms (this will be a common theme among many of these pieces, showing what a long shadow he cast on late Romantic—and later—music, especially chamber music, Wagner and Philip Nathan Hale to the contrary notwithstanding), and teeming with mellifluousness. For those with 20-20 hindsight, it also shows up certain traits that persisted in Mahler’s mature work: the trill in the main theme becomes a structural element in development, much as other ornamental figures like turns do in the symphonies and song cycles. The BCMS members and guests, Lucy Chapman, violin, Marcus Thompson, viola, Astrid Schween (of the Lark Quartet), cello, and Randall Hodgkinson, piano, gave this a fine, characterful, reading imbued with the Romantic, adolescent Weltschmerz it requires. We were especially impressed with Ms. Schween, who really dug in.

Alban Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, op. 5, along with the Webern Four Pieces for Violin and Piano later on in the program, are not quite in keeping with the overall scheme of the concert, inasmuch as, while early works, they fit more closely with their composers’ mature compositions. The Berg is a favorite, to the extent any Second Viennese School work can be so classified, with clarinetists. However, they are, despite their brevity, fiendishly difficult to bring off properly. They reflect the extreme miniaturization and concentration of utterance that Schoenberg and his pupils essayed after forswearing tonality, before the development of 12-tone technique permitted them (well, most of them, Webern the exception) to resume more expansive musical discourse. The Berg pieces are some of his most Webern-ish—gnomic melodic nuggets emerging from and receding into silence, with some gruff and gnarly bits in the “scherzo” third piece (the whole set, typically, structured as if it were a sonata with a slow finale). As to the performance: we have not had opportunity, on these pages or pixels, to comment on a performance by Thomas Hill, but although he neither pays nor owes us anything, we are compelled to say that he is among the very best clarinetists anywhere, at least the equal of most of the ones with higher public profiles. Listening to his rich tone, mind-bending breath and volume control, and the intelligence and conviction of his phrasing in this challenging piece is as good a way as we can think of to demonstrate just what we mean. Mr. Hodgkinson held up his end just about as well, but this is really the clarinetist’s tour de force of subdued, smoldering fire.

Ms. Chapman and Mr. Hodgkinson had an amiable time, evidently, presenting Arnold Schoenberg’s Piece in D minor (a key Schoenberg seems to have liked in his early days; both his first string quartet and the Verklärte Nacht were in it) For violin and piano, it is a brief exercise in Viennese parlor Gemütlichkeit, with nice use of hemiola—there’s that Brahms again!

Anton Webern was represented by three works in succession, the aforementioned Four Pieces, op. 7, very much like the Berg in affect and in many of the musical methodologies—short, mysterious phrases tentatively attempting to improve on silence—Harumi Rhodes, violin, made a fabulous entrance ex nihilo. We were sitting up close, so could just hear it — pity those in the balcony; but it just proves that the visuals of a live performance are critically important. While, as an early atonal work these pieces do not fully realize their composer’s lapidary talent for organization, they certainly do reflect many of his familiar characteristics—the extreme brevity and concentration, as in the last piece, encapsulating a whole century in a single phrase. There was nothing wanting, to these ears, in any aspect of Ms. Rhodes’s or Mr. Hodgkinson’s performance: they kept us on seat’s edge.

The next two Webern works were decidedly different. The Two Pieces for Cello and Piano, written in 1899 when Webern was 16, would make for lovely encore pieces (so would the Schoenberg), especially the first, with its charming tune (See? he could!). Ms. Schween’s tone was luscious; Mr. Hodgkinson, as ever, the perfect foil. More significant was the Piano Quintet of 1907, a single-movement work (unlike the Mahler, but like Berg’s Piano Sonata, intentionally so) The analogy to Brahms in the musical language breaks down with this piece; it’s clearly much more chromatic, more like Reger or later Thuille, and employs all the most up-to-date compositional tricks like the disguised recapitulation, which actually is Brahmsian. It also much more clearly shows Webern developing some of his own tics, such as the condensation, and some of his standard memes, like sul ponticello tremolo playing. This is a serious, sturdy piece worth keeping in repertory, and the performance by Mesd. Chapman, Rhodes and Schween and Messrs. Thompson and Hodgkinson was compelling.

The biggest work on the program (no surprise here), occupying the entire second half, was the Strauss C minor Piano Quartet, op. 13 (with Strauss, the pieces with opus numbers are earlier; with Webern, they’re later). Like the Bartók Piano Quintet, this is an early but still compositionally mature work (written, incidentally, in 1881, the year Bartók was born). The opening theme of the first movement is rhythmically vigorous, the second exaggeratedly slow, with some nice chromatic flourishes—indeed, the work is harmonically more advanced than his friend Mahler’s admittedly somewhat earlier work, and contains many felicities of development, and a Beethoven-style coda amounting to a second development. There is an elfin “Scherzo,” which the BCMS players took as rather more diabolic than the music itself suggests; a slow movement of strongly melodic bent, not entirely well-served by being in sonata form; and a robust and tempestuous finale that makes much of a little opening motif and its inversion. The performance, by Rhodes, Thompson, Schween and Hodgkinson, was full-blooded yet sensitive, and amply justifies repeated hearings.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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