The second of four concerts by the Boston Chamber Music Society in Watertown celebrating Debussy’s 150th birthday touched off with a mild round of applause for an Erik Satie duet and landed with rounds and rounds of applause for a Gabriel Fauré piano quartet. A highly elevated cello performance by Ronald Thomas of the Debussy sonata before intermission was contained, however, not by Randall Hodgkinson’s pianism but the piano itself. Marcus Thompson’s fetchingly earnest viola further exposed the unsuitability of this particular Steinway — an instrument that does not belong in the Charles Mosesian Theater in the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.
Disconnection with the Satie in the near-filled theater went beyond the piano problem. Choses vues à droite et à gauche (sans lunettes) translates as “Things seen to right and to left (without glasses).” For some reason Satie’s parenthetical phrase did not appear on the printed program. Choral hypocrite, Fugue á tâtons (groping fugue), and Fantaisie musculaire, all short frisky pieces, came off way too seriously with Hodgkinson accompanying Steven Copes on violin. No spoofiness, which is too bad. These really are fun.
Following this was a “piano recital” as one concert-goer put it: Fauré’s Prélude in D-flat Major, Op. 103, No. 1 and Prélude in C-sharp minor, Op. 103, no. 2; Debussy’s Claire de lune; Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1; and Fauré again, his Impromptu no. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 34. Hodgkinson fought and fought the piano. His moving from piece to piece, preempted any clapping, kept the concert moving along, the set flowing, and allowed more reflection on the sounds and tastes of a musical Paris in Debussy’s time. My admiration is here expressed for Hodgkinson’s utter professionalism in doing all he could do with the instrument, smiling after his performance while graciously acknowledging the audience’s generous applause.
Ronald Thomas connects. Before beginning the sonata, the Artistic Director Emeritus of the BCMS spoke to us about the speed-of-lightning mood swings of the first of Debussy’s six sonatas for diverse instruments, all “offerings” in homage to his wife, Emma. The poco animando melody of the Prologue came ever so lightly from Thomas’s wisps of bow, so tenderly from his floating fingers over the cello’s strings. He told about Pierrot, the stock character of pantomime, having more trouble than can be believed in one futile attempt after another at playing the guitar, and about Debussy quizzically entitling the second movement Sérénade. Plucking and sliding, slowing and accelerating, bowing on the fingerboard, Thomas engaged in some perfectly fine frustrated frolicking. In the Final, his cello passionately sang out the four rising notes, la-do-re-mi. Often, Thomas “played” the music, waving his left arm in the air again, uniting still more listeners with the music of Debussy.
BCMS’s performance of Fauré’s mammoth Piano Quartet in G minor, op. 45 could be described as many-hued and sizzling, a most human endeavor, and an endearing tribute. The players were Steven Copes, violin, Artistic Director Marcus Thompson, viola, Ronald Thomas, cello, and Randall Hodgkinson, piano.
So, what’s wrong with the piano? It was not well tuned. Its bass clef notes grumble, obscuring harmony. Its note decay is fast, fast, fast — no resonance. It’s “percussive,” as another concert-goer observed. A “questionable piano,” as I wrote in my review [here] of the first Debussy concert a week ago Saturday night. At that concert we were sitting in row J seats 2 and 4, the fourth row from the top of the theater. Last night, we were given press seats B 111 and 112, only two rows from the stage. It became totally obvious from sitting this close that it was not distance, but the piano itself. Time for a new one!