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Fabulous Instrumentalists, Less Musicality


The Boston Chamber Music Society concert on Sunday featured two old friends: the Janáček Violin and Piano Sonata as well as the Brahms Piano Quintet and one potential new friend, the Britten Second Quartet, which I had never before heard live. The program said You Must Go!

First the positives: Bayla Keyes, Roger Tapping, Benjamin Hochman, Astrid Schween, and Harumi Rhodes are fabulous instrumentalists. Keyes has truly come into her own as an artist, and Tapping is the chamber music player’s dream viola “Anchor.” Hochman is a very tasteful and impressive pianist, and Schween (whose biography was mysteriously missing from the program — Google her) is a wonderful cellist, although she perhaps could assert her personality a bit more. Rhodes has fabulous technical proficiency and a wonderful palette of sonorities.

But… there are unfortunately some ‘buts.’ It was our ‘new friend,’ Benjamin Britten’s Second String Quartet in C Major, written for the 250th anniversary of Henry Purcell’s death — not that there was much resemblance to Purcell’s music here — that was given the most satisfying performance of the evening. Under the masterful leadership of Bayla Keyes, here playing first violin, Britten’s music had a direction, shape and sense of destiny from the first note to the end. The first movement, a wonderful combination of the tradition of British plainsong with Britten’s modernism, ends with a tranquil coda that leaves the listener surprised by the unusual scherzo that follows. The second movement has been described in program notes as “a vigorous tarantella for muted strings, suggesting a shadow play of shapes, half recalled from the first movement.” Our performers captured the eerie mood perfectly.

The ‘Chacony’ (Purcell’s spelling of Chaconne) third movement is the heart of the Quartet and is longer than the first two movements combined. This Chaconne, like its famous predecessors by Purcell, Bach, Vitale and others, is a stately Spanish/Peruvian dance with variations over a ground bass. It opens with a nine-measure theme and is followed by some 24 variations. One unique aspect of this movement is Britten’s use of solo cadenzas for each of the four instruments as interstices between groups of variations. Perhaps surprisingly, these cadenzas give the movement an almost orchestral power and expanse and enhance the solemnity of the dance when it returns to its pulsing rhythm. Each of our performers played the cadenzas marvelously, but we would give special mention to Keyes and Tapping for awe-inspiring performances.

There are quartets in which one instrument is given virtuoso fireworks or a soaring melody — usually the first violin, as in Haydn, but sometimes the cello as in Hindemith’s Third, while others accompany; but here all take their turn. (Perhaps Britten had been influenced by the ‘riffs round the band’ of jazz. Not long before writing the Second Quartet, he had composed his often jazz-inspired ‘American’ operetta, Paul Bunyan, which NEC introduced to Boston audiences last month.) His Quartet reprises its stately theme and ends in the home key of C-Major, bringing the work to a consonant, confident, conclusion. Arnold Schoenberg himself once allegedly said that even if 12-tone dissonance was the wave of the future, “there was still a lot of great music to be written in C major.” Britten’s Quartet is one of those great pieces.

Rhodes, violin, and Hochman, piano were the performers for Janáček’s Violin (and Piano!) Sonata. Rhodes has an awesome virtuoso technique, flawless intonation, an impressive palette of sonorities, and a stunning dynamic range. Unfortunately, she used the Janáček as a showpiece for these skills rather than employing them to convey Janáček’s music and its context and subtext. The program’s listing of the work as only a “Violin Sonata” was revelatory – my pianist wife picked up on the reference immediately. We have played this Sonata often. Not only does the piano have an exponentially larger number of notes to play, but it is, or should be, an equal partner in this work. If a violinist wants to have a show-piece vehicle to display virtuosity, Wienawski, Paganini, or Sarasate would be a better horse to ride.

Janáček’s work does not have an explicit program, but it is very much about a specific time, place, and series of events. It is about World War I, when it was composed. It is about the rich folk-music heritage of the Czech, Moravian, and Slovak lands. It is about Janáček’s Pan-Slavic hopes — the program notes reminded us— for the Western Slavic Lands to be liberated from Austria by Imperial Russia (as odd as this may sound to contemporary ears). If one is to communicate the Sonata’s power to an audience, one needs to convey some of that context.

Unfortunately, in Rhodes’s hands, the episodic tapestry of scenes from Moravian life and dreams became an even more fragmented, jagged mosaic where each stone, though highly polished, fit ill with the others and made a whole incongruent either with Janacek’s musical language or with the historical context. There is a difference between Slavic folk tunes and gypsy style and slides. Not all Eastern European music is alike.

Given that the Sonata was written during World War I, not World War II, the violin’s reference to artillery in the last movement Adagio is to Russian cannon, not to AK 47s. Performers of this piece should know the difference in the sounds these weapons make. I overheard one audience member say “that didn’t sound like Janáček.” I have to agree.

There is perhaps a broader problem here. Too many modern music schools – and unfortunately Juilliard in particular, from which Rhodes graduated and at which she now teaches – turn out musicians who are virtuoso instrumentalists but seem not to have had much contact with history, dance, languages, or vocal music. What a pity.

I hope this doesn’t sound too rude, but Brahms composed, lived and performed in Vienna. This performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor was rooted in New York. Rhodes as first violin and leader unfortunately set the tone. Instead of being majestic, the first movement was nervous and exaggerated. Nearly every part of every phrase had a dynamic hairpin. It was almost like reading a text or letter where every third or fourth word was in bold. The second movement was like unto that: alternately breathless and halting, and then over-dramatized rather than maintaining the “long lines” and a direction. Unfortunately, Rhodes’s body movements accentuated the over-dramatization.

Our reaction to the third movement was: “What’s the hurry?” To the fourth: “Does it have to be so intense?” In a previous life, I took a master class with the great Sandor Vegh. After I had played for him, he said: “Young man. The phrase is Play the Violin, not Work the Violin”… a thought for our youthful performers to remember…

Once again, the technical skills on display were stupendous. Musicality…not so much.

Lawrence Franko, an investment manager, is concertmaster of Sounds of Stow and also performs often with his wife, a pianist. He is a graduate of Harvard College (’63) and the Business School (’70).


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