in: Reviews

November 22, 2011

BCMS Expertly Performs, Yet Again

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The Boston Chamber Music Society’s second concert of the season, heard at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge on Sunday evening, November 20, presented music by Haydn, Dohnányi, Bloch, and Schumann, expertly performed. Lucy Chapman, guest violinist, and Randall Hodgkinson, piano, were ably supported by Astrid Schween, cello in Haydn’s Piano Trio in C major, Hob. XV:27. This is the first of four trios dedicated to Therese Jansen, a celebrated piano virtuoso whom the composer met in London during his visits there in the 1790s. Like most eighteenth-century piano trios, Haydn’s were conceived as convivial sonatas for the pianoforte (often played by a highly-skilled female amateur) “with the accompaniment of” violin and cello (instruments usually played by men). Thus, in the opening Allegro of the C major Trio, the piano carried most of the thematic weight, with only occasional motivic input from the accompanying strings. The development was more adventurous: after a series of brief harmonic explorations, it launched into a “false recapitulation” in the wrong key. There followed a fugato-style elaboration of the main themes in which both violin and cello participated, winding up to a rollicking crescendo before the real return. In the graceful Andante, a passionate minore interlude and ornamented return gave the violin a chance to shine with intricate figuration, while the Presto Finale, in which piano and violin engaged in lively thematic exchange, showed Haydn at his quirky, humorous best. Leading the ensemble, Hodgkinson’s unerring sense of timing allowed for both leisurely cadential elaborations and headlong conclusions. Chapman and Schween played with beautiful phrasing and incisive articulation — ensemble playing at its best.

Violinist Yura Lee joined violist Marcus Thompson, artistic director of the Chamber Music Society, and cellist Astrid Schween in the Serenade in C major for String Trio, op. 10, by Ernö Dohnányi (1877-1960; grandfather of the conductor Christoph von Dohnányi).  Dohnányi’s career as pianist, teacher, and conductor began in Hungary, where he championed the music of Bartók and Kodály, and ended in the United States. Composed in 1902, his five-movement Serenade evokes similarly lighthearted music from the Classical era, combining echoes of Brahms with his own brand of lyricism. A Hungarian-tinged melody, worked out contrapuntally, appears as an interlude in the opening Marcia. In the Romanza, the viola opens with a beautiful Adagio melody against pizzicato violin and cello, followed by a soaring melody in the violin. The Scherzo features a perpetuum mobile theme with contrasting Trio, and the Andante Tema con variazione a chromatically-tinged theme most poignant in its Adagio incarnation. The final movement, a Rondo, adds a rustic touch to one of its interludes with a Hungarian melody over drone fifths in the cello.

Ernest Bloch’s Two Pieces for String Quartet were composed twelve years apart. The Andante moderato, from 1938, with its dark harmonies, has a neo-romantic cast. The second piece, Allegro molto, composed in 1950, contrasts dissonant gestures and brusque, aggressive rhythms with a lyrical interlude and concluding reminiscences of the Andante. Lucy Chapman joined the members of the string trio as first violinist in this engaging performance.

Hodgkinson returned to the stage, and Chapman and Lee exchanged places in the final offering, Schumann’s popular Piano Quintet in E-flat major, op. 44. Players of the rousing Allegro brillante all too often thump their way through this movement with its multiplicity of energetic themes. It was gratifying to hear sensitive ensemble playing — give and take among the players — taking precedence over romantic excess. Steady tempo throughout the second movement prevented the funeral march from lapsing into pathos as it faded away. The brilliant Scherzo gave all members of the ensemble plenty to do, with rapid scales in the opening section, distant bells sounding in the first Trio, and echoes of Schubert in the second. Attention to details of texture and articulation held our interest throughout the lengthy Finale, Allegro ma non troppo, culminating in a return of the first movement’s opening theme in a fugato apotheosis.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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