in: Reviews

August 22, 2011

BCMS Transcendent at Longy

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The Boston Chamber Music Society continued its summer season with a concert in the newly renovated Pickman Hall at the Longy School of Music of Bard College. Three regulars of BCMS – first-rate musicians all – presented two early sonatas by Mozart and Richard Strauss and ended with the great Piano Trio in B-flat Major of Franz Schubert.

I had just driven in from Wellfleet where I attended the final concert of the Cape Cod Music Festival – reviewed here. The Wellfleet concert was wonderful, and I was glad to have gone – but the BCMS concert had a joy to it that I did not find in Wellfleet. Put three fine musicians that have played with each other for years together with highly accessible music in an intimate setting and the result can be transcendent. Violinist Ida Levin remarked that the wonderful program notes did not tell us that the first piece – the Violin Sonata in F major, K 376, was written in 1781 – the same date as the violin she was playing. She even wondered if her instrument had premiered any of Mozart’s later sonatas.

The sonata she then played, with Mihae Lee, piano, was written shortly after Mozart’s move to Vienna. It is light, cheerful, and melodic. I do not remember hearing it before, but I would gladly hear it again. The balance between the two performers was perfect – Lee’s light touch on the keys always added and never obscured the violin. The ensemble between the two players was outstanding. Unlike in Wellfleet where the brightness of the treble keys of the piano did not reflect off the top of the piano into the audience on the floor, in Pickman from my seat in the second row I could see the treble sound board reflected in the top, and the sound was just right.

Although sometimes simplistic, the Cello Sonata in F major, Opus 6, an early work by Richard Strauss, was full of melodies and rich harmonies, giving strong promise of the great pieces he would later write. It was played by Lee and Ronald Thomas, one of the co-founders of BCMS, and once again, the balance and ensemble were wonderful. Lee’s touch and phrasing was entirely different from the Mozart, matching Strauss’s flowing harmonies. Thomas played beautifully. He apologized before the piece started for his need to tune between each movement. He has recently decided to try gut core strings on his cello, and they were behaving badly due to the sticky weather. Thomas’s metal wound strings have a somewhat richer, more nasal sound than steel or synthetic core strings. Besides changing length with humidity, gut strings absorb more energy than steel when you bend them, a factor that tends to absorb the high harmonics in the string before they can be radiated out into the hall. This gives the cello a richer tone – possibly closer to what a nineteenth-century composer might have expected. I loved the performance, and so did the audience. Lots of applause and bravos greeted the end of the Finale.

Schubert’s well-known Piano Trio in B-flat major, D 898, closed the program, and once again the balance and ensemble between the players was exceptional. Interesting to me was the contrast between the brightness of the steel strings in the violin, and the somewhat richer sound of the gut core strings on the cello, but this in no way affected the delight of the performance.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

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