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BCMS’s Clever Programming on “Variations”


The December 11 performance at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium by the Boston Chamber Music Society (giving it the benefit of the doubt, explained below) was a cleverly programmed one that attempted to integrate a more diverse than normal repertoire under the umbrella of “developing variations,” with examples from the Baroque (Bach), Classical (Beethoven), Romantic (Brahms) and proto-modern (early Schoenberg). Not so much a fresh idea, perhaps, as a Frisch one — although Walter Frisch got the impetus from Schoenberg himself, whose “Brahms the Progressive” thesis purported to find Brahms’s music full of motivic manipulations on a variation principle that foreshadowed Schoenberg’s own processes. Whatever. But it certainly makes a good narrative line on which to hang a concert.

Exhibit A was Beethoven’s Twelve Variations for Piano and Cello in G major on “See the conquering hero comes” from Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus,” to give it its full title, WoO 45. These variations, dating from 1796, show that from a surprisingly early period Beethoven was moving away from the chiefly decorative style of variation writing that underlay even Haydn and Mozart’s works of this type, toward a deeper and richer digging into the harmonic and motivic guts of the principal tune. Each variation has a distinct character, and the entire set is “fit up,” in Virgil Thomson’s phrase, into a unit that resembles a sonata movement, with a proper recapitulation about three-fourths of the way through. Thus, from the standpoint of the program’s argument, this was a set of explicit variations constituting a larger structure. Guest cellist Peter Stumpf, who was principal cellist of the LA Philharmonic and now teaches at Indiana University, along with BCMS pianist Randall Hodgkinson, gave a well-shaped account that conveyed both the individuality of the variations and the architecture of the whole work. Stumpf kept his touch on the light side, perhaps in deference to the early date of this piece in Beethoven’s catalogue.

The Brahms Trio in A minor for clarinet, cello and piano, op. 114, that ended the first half is, paradoxically, the work on the program least amenable to the gloss Schoenberg and Frisch put on its composer’s style. At least, that’s the case when one ventures beyond the superficial observation that a lot of Brahms’s melodies here involve a second half that is the inversion of the first. Daniel Gregory Mason, writing his classic study of Brahms’s chamber music in 1933, saw this as a weakness; Schoenberg, writing in 1947, saw it as a strength (because it anticipated his own process). What Mason thought about Schoenberg is probably not printable in family media such as this.

Brahms’s four works for clarinet — this trio, the Quintet op. 115, and the two sonatas of op. 120 — are, along with Mozart’s concerto and quintet, the bedrock of the clarinet repertoire, and although the trio is probably the weakest of the four, any clarinetist worth his or her salt craves the chance to tackle it at least several times in a career. For this occasion, instead of its own stellar clarinetist Thomas Hill, BCMS presented the New York-based Israeli Alexander Fiterstein, together with Stumpf and Hodgkinson. Stumpf displayed a good deal more power and resonance here than in the Beethoven, while Hodgkinson contributed considerable warmth and richness and, as required, tactful support where the other instruments take the leading role. Fiterstein is a highly capable and adroit player, with an elegant, smooth tone and superb phrasing and breath control. In short, this was a very good and satisfactory performance overall. What it lacked was the sense of passion and urgency that makes for a great performance. The 20-year-old BCMS recording with Hill, Ronald Thomas and Mihae Lee was just such a great performance, which for us remains the definitive one, eclipsing those by much more famous players.

It was a touch of programming inspiration to open the second half with a Bach trio sonata, this the one for flute, violin and continuo from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079. In this age of historical performance practices, a modern-instruments reading of a Bach work might raise eyebrows, but in some respects the practice has at least partial justification for TMO, which arose from King Frederick II (“the Great”) of Prussia’s showing off his newfangled instrument, the piano, to the visiting Bach. Like all the other components of TMO, the trio sonata is based on the peculiar and convoluted theme on which Frederick set Bach the task of  improvising fugues. In the slow-fast-slow-fast sonata da chiesa format, the trio’s slow movements approach the theme obliquely, dissecting and reassembling its motivic material in ways that disguise the tune, while the fast movements deal with it more directly and contrapuntally. The trio performing it (the flutist and violinist standing, in their one nod to Baroque practice) consisted of Lorna McGhee, principal flutist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, BCMS member Harumi Rhodes, violin, and Hodgkinson, whose use of the piano made of this much more of a trio in the contemporary sense. Their playing style was unapologetically modern, with Rhodes using ample vibrato, Hodgkinson pedaling, and McGhee supplying a rich, fat and forward sound owing nothing to the wooden flauto traverso. The ensemble performed with spirit and momentum in the fast movements and the Andante third movement, but seemed dullish in the opening Largo; the concluding Allegro jig was sprightly and charming while pointing up the ramifications of Frederick’s tune. One difficulty, however, was that Rhodes could not produce the sheer volume of sound needed to match McGhee.

The Schoenberg op. 9 Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E Major occupies a critical spot in its composer’s output — not as blatantly so as the op. 10 string quartet, which finally took the plunge into atonality in its finale, but because it showed what the logical conclusion might be to the progressive expansion of tonality to embrace the entire chromatic spectrum. After hearing its premiere in 1906, Mahler was famously moved to declare that Schoenberg had crossed a threshold he (Mahler) could never see himself treading; and indeed, notwithstanding the dissonant outbursts in Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, nothing he or Strauss wrote was ever quite as vertiginous as the harrowing roller-coaster Schoenberg set loose in this symphony (a courtesy title, really, as its one movement does not even nod toward the multi-movement structure that other single-movement symphonies usually synthesize).

The version of the Schoenberg the BCMS put on — and here we must digress to say that “BCMS” is becoming a bit of a courtesy title, as a majority of performers on Sunday were guests — was a reduction (a reduction of a reduction, one might say) by Anton Webern for Pierrot ensemble. One must tread cautiously in evaluating Webern arrangements as works of the original composer; his Bach orchestrations, for example, are far more Webern than Bach — but here he seemed on best behavior, allowing the original melodic lines their continuity; maybe this was because in 1933, when he made the transcription, Schoenberg was very much alive and able to keep tabs. We should further observe that even with the comforting “E Major” in the title, the name Schoenberg on the program seemed sufficient to drive a small exodus of audience from the room. The reduced scoring traded power, warmth and color for clarity of line, which the ensemble — McGhee, Fiterstein, Rhodes, Stumpf and Hodgkinson — delivered with commendable spirit and precision. What the scoring also did, albeit inadvertently, was to uncover a few bald spots in the music. Overall, this was an exceptionally fine performance of this work in a “handy” version that permits close inspection of the composer’s ideas.

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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