It was heartening to see a healthy turnout as Boston Artists Ensemble rounded off its 30th season on April 15, at Trinity Church, Newton Center, on a day when so many other Bostonians were enjoying the spring weather or cheering on the newly returned Red Sox at Fenway Park. The audience was well rewarded by a program of two little-known but very engaging works and one of the towering masterpieces of the chamber repertoire, all played sumptuously by violist Edward Gazouleas, cellist Jonathan Miller, and violinists Tatiana Dimitriades and Bayla Keyes.
The apéritif was a charming rarity by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Duo for Viola and Cello “with eyeglasses obbligato,” WoO 32, drawn from a collection of sketches Beethoven made between 1784 and 1800. Possibly the first movement of an unfinished sonata for this unusual combination, it is thought to have been written for the composer to play with his friend and patron, Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, “a reasonably proficient cellist.” (The crucial clue: a letter addressed to “My dearest Baron Muckcart Driver” in which Beethoven refers to his friend’s weak eyesight.) The cellist, in particular, has his work cut out for him — one wonders how proficient the baron was — especially in an energetic passage that extends well into violin range; but both instruments have their share of showy music. The highly exposed texture did betray a couple fleeting moments of imperfect tuning, but Gazouleas’s and Miller’s performances had a winning combination of ebullience, understated wit, and exemplary ensemble.
Dimitriades joined Gazouleas and Miller for the Serenade in C, Opus 10, by Ernö (aka Ernst) Dohnányi (1877-1960), the great Hungarian composer, pianist, and conductor as well as grandfather of the estimable music director emeritus of the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi. The opening Marcia was vigorous; its Trio had a strong folk music element in an extended perfect-fifth drone. The Romanza delighted, as Gazouleas supplied a beguiling theme in the viola to pizzicato accompaniment by violin and cello; one could envision a serenade with mandolin, moonlight, and balcony. The Scherzo ingeniously combined the old-fashioned — fugal form — with the modern — an angular, tensely chromatic fugue subject, as well as the romantic — the lyrical and passionate second theme. It was a neat trick to combine two utterly contrasted themes so convincingly; virtuosity of composer and performers was on display here. The Tema con variazioni got considerable mileage from its doleful theme. For me, the highlights were the first variation, like a bel canto aria expressively sung by Dimitriades, and the final variation in which the trio gave us a seductively beautiful love song, briefly interrupted by an ominous moment before concluding blissfully. In the brilliant display of the final Rondo the players engaged in some friendly competition that featured plenty of joie de vivre — and joie de jouer.
In the second half Keyes joined the above trio for Franz Schubert‘s String Quartet in D minor, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden.” However, we were a long time getting started due to extensive furniture-moving by the musicians — and consequent retuning. Surely in the future someone could be appointed to do the legwork during intermission? The experience was also not enhanced for me by my neighbor’s atonal groaning along with the music through most of the piece. Perhaps an excellent performance of a beloved piece does sometimes tempt one to participate, but I’m quite sure Miss Manners would disapprove, along with fellow audience members. Venting concluded.
The quartet members generated full-blooded drama from the great contrasts of Schubert’s first movement, now fortissimo thundering, now piano wheedling. It is the second movement, a set of variations on the composer’s song, Der Tod und das Mädchen, that lends its name to his penultimate quartet. In the original song the piano sets the scene with a very somber introduction; we progress to the maiden’s fearful pleading for Death to pass her by; and conclude with Death’s soothing invitation for her to sleep peacefully in his arms. Although Schubert here omits the actual music of the maiden, in the first variation Keyes made her pleading quite perceptible in the first violin part, sometimes sweet-talking, sometimes agitated. The second variation gives the limelight to the cello, and Miller’s soulful song was set off beautifully by the upper strings’ accompaniment, delicate as lacework. Variation no. 3’s agitated anapestic rhythms were possibly a representation of the maiden’s last resistance, while the major-mode serenity of the last variation in the instruments’ celestial upper registers suggested she had crossed over to a better place. The quartet made this a sublime oasis in a largely turbulent, feverish work. The scherzo plunged us back into the tempest though not without the respite of the elegant, anodyne Trio, calm at the center of the storm. The famous tarantella of the finale crackled with electricity, the ensemble wonderfully tight at a genuine Presto. Even at this breathless pace, the players gave us a considerable variety of textures and colors: agitated whisperings, wildly whirling dervishes, the Olympian pronouncements of the second chorale-like theme. And I should think the Prestissimo coda left performers and audience alike gasping for breath. Congratulations to the Boston Artists Ensemble on the superb conclusion of its 30th season, and may it have a great many more.