The Boston Chamber Music Society’s program of sextets by Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms, with a Mendelssohn Capriccio for string quartet thrown in to round out the program was challenging. The performances were masterful, but the interpretations were varied yesterday in Sanders Theatre.
The concert began with Richard Strauss’s string sextet from Capriccio, op. 85 (1940-41). Harumi Rhodes and Ida Levin, violins; Roger Tapping and Marcus Thompson, violas; Ronald Thomas and Raman Ramakrishnan, celli; took the stage to present this ten-minute work that is off-stage music from the beginning of Strauss’s fourteenth, and final, opera. I found the work beautifully executed, but the music felt incomplete. The performers are right to bring this work into wider circulation, but in the end I don’t think it holds its own on the concert-stage. In the context of Capriccio, the string sextet represents music and vies with the poet’s words for the hand of the noblewoman. Of course, librettist Clemens Krauss’s tale is a meta-opera exploring whether music or words take primacy in opera; there is no answer. The sextet works well in its context within Capriccio because it is balanced by the poet’s words, each needing the other to make sense. This, I think, is why I found the performance somehow lacking.
The musicians next offered Brahms’s String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, op. 18 (1859–60). The work opened on a staid character, the Allegro ma non troppo finding its organic passion in the development section. The Andante, ma moderato reached a wonderfully wistful ending. The finale, a Rondo: Poco Allegretto e grazioso, ended with a fleet rapidity which was captivating. These, for me, were the highlights in this challenging and well-played work. Otherwise I found the reading presented to be ponderous in its weight (the third movement Scherzo: Allegro molto most especially), and the execution listing towards being tight-voiced. I fell under the spell of this work in a more ebullient vein and find most other readings unconvincing; this was the case tonight.
Following intermission, Levin, Rhodes, Thompson, and Ramakrishnan returned to the stage to present Mendelssohn’s Capriccio for String Quartet in E-minor op. 81, No. 3. Written in 1843, it is a publisher’s assemblage of movements left unpublished at the time of the composer’s death. The Capriccio is a delightful morsel, presented here to play off of the Strauss sextet from Capriccio. I found the Mendelssohn to be fleet and impassioned, with a wonderful forward momentum. Although a single movement, it felt more complete to me than did the Strauss that opened the program.
All six musicians returned to the stage for Brahms’s String Sextet No. 2 in G, op. 36. Composed in 1864–5, this work has the subtitle “Agathe” since it records the composer’s love and break with Agathe von Seibold. The opening Allegro non troppo announced a full-throttle conversation among six equal voices. The Scherzo: Allegro non troppo opened in a vein highly reminiscent of Mendelssohn, before veering into darker harmonic territory. The Trio portion was an unbridled rustic dance, very much in the spirit of Beethoven. Interestingly the recap acquired a poignant sadness not heard in the initial statement. The Poco Adagio was tender and feisty by turns, then sublime at movement’s end. The finale, Poco Allegro, was a study in the interplay among voices, the center of this musical conversation ever-shifting. I heard for the first time a prefiguration of Debussy’s La Mer in this closing movement. Here I thought the reading offered by the performers was original, interesting, and well-suited to the music (unlike my reaction to the first Brahms sextet earlier on the program).
I appreciate the Boston Chamber Music Society’s programming these sextets. It is not easy to get a string sextet together and I understand the effort involved in mustering the musicians. All are talented and the performances were accomplished, with coherent ensemble-playing throughout. With works of this caliber and difficulty, that is no small thing. Others may have responded more favorably than I to all the readings offered in this concert. For me, it was a mixed bag, but one that included some performances I am glad I heard.
Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.