At this time of year one inures oneself to the onslaught of holiday concerts—rather too much of a good thing. What a relief, then, to know that there is still much high-quality music-making of other types going on. This measure of relief befell a grateful and substantial audience in Ashmont, Dorchester, on December 9th, when Ashmont Hill Chamber Music presented Gabriela Diaz, violin; Jan Müller-Szeraws, cello; and Rachel Goodwin, piano; at Peabody Hall of All Saints Church, in a program of Sibelius, Schulhoff, Schumann and Beethoven.
Diaz and Goodwin began with two little pieces by Sibelius, the Rondino, no. 2 of the Five Pieces for Violin and Piano, op. 81, and the Romance, also a second number, this from the Four Pieces, op. 78. In the spirit, perhaps, of eating dessert first, these two slight items might be best suited as encore works, and the suites from which they were extracted probably among the things Sibelius churned out when (as often) in need of money. They are, nevertheless, charming and clearly in Sibelius’s characteristic voice. Diaz, a consummate professional, did not simply toss them off, but gave them a rich and elegant turn, the Rondino light but lusty, the Romance with high eloquence and warm vibrato, and judiciously subdued portamento. Goodwin provided solid, unobtrusive support.
The next item was far more substantial, this being the Duo for Violin and Cello, a 1925 work by Erwin Schulhoff. The tragedy of Schulhoff’s demise in a Nazi concentration camp should not be read backwards to color his earlier work. He wrote his duo when he was 31 and newly returned to Prague; it shows the influence, among others, of Janácek, and is a remarkable work in a style one might call “dissonant modality with hints of folk influence overlaid with chromaticism.” Schulhoff was not aligned with the 1920s avant-garde, but was definitely aware of current thinking. The writing for the strings is masterful, both in terms of technique (plenty of harmonics and left-hand pizzicato) and counterpoint. The opening movement, whose theme also forms the basis for the finale, is sober and contrapuntal; the scherzo is a gruff gypsified dance, and the slow movement is riveting in its shifting instrumental colors and balance. Diaz and Müller-Szeraws were flawless in their negotiation of the work’s technical and expressive intricacies, and were so well integrated as a team that they might have constituted a single extended instrument. Müller-Szeraws impressed with his tight spiccato in the scherzo. These players made as good a case for this superb and relatively unfamiliar work as one can imagine possible.
The first half of the program ended with Müller-Szeraws and Goodwin in Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style, op. 102. Much favored by cellists, these pieces are deceptively simple-sounding but contain ingenious rhythmic irregularities and complexities. The opening movement, Mit Humor, tries to persuade us that the players are not together, while it’s just that the cello’s melody keeps overreaching the bar lines, while the piano thumps out the “official” downbeat. This and many of the other tricks Schumann uses to spice up these pieces are very well recounted in the excellent program notes for the piece by David Ferris, as indeed all the works were well discussed by various annotators. We mention this because of reports we got that some audience members had deprecated the notes for being “overly technical” (though they also went into the historical, cultural and personal contexts of all the pieces on the program). Lest AHCM pay much heed to this grousing, let us cast a vote in favor of the generously informative style of its program annotations. The organization should, as some others do, post the notes on its web site.
But we digress. Notwithstanding the high technique behind their construction, these pieces are not high intensity Schumann, but they are charming and congenial in the same way so many of the composer’s short piano pieces are. Müller-Szeraws and Goodwin applied their customary polish, eloquence and acuity to their performances, though considering the hard flat surfaces and consequent very live acoustic of Peabody Hall, the pedaling on the piano could have been more restrained. We especially liked their phrasing (notably the well-shaped phrase endings) in the third movement.
The second part of the program was devoted to Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 4 (or is it 5? Or 6?) in D major, op. 70, no. 1, called the “Ghost” trio after a remark by Carl Czerny about the spooky slow movement (Czerny thought it conjured the ghost of Hamlet’s father, but scholars have actually found a link to the witches’ scene in Macbeth). This is either Beethoven’s most popular or second-most-popular piano trio (the other being the op. 97 “Archduke”), and is one of Beethoven’s great middle-period masterpieces, in the complexly extroverted style one local radio announcer likes to call “mighty Beethoven.” As a composition, it certainly broke ground in the scale and ambition of its musical argument, with two outer movements of brilliant compactness and energy (so compact, in fact, that in the first movement Beethoven called for a development-recapitulation repeat, as in early Haydn sonatas), encasing a longer slow movement that sets up eerie sonorities and obsesses over a portentous phrase elaborating a turn. An awful lot, a lot of it awful, has been written about this piece, much of it entirely too dismissive of the outer movements, but a reasonably balanced program note is here.
Since this is such a familiar work, one is inevitably tempted to dwell on every tiny detail of performance. This we will resist: with performers of high quality such as these, even in an ad hoc assemblage rather than as a dedicated trio, one can expect the essence of the music to come through, which of course it did. The approach this trio took was broadly robust and romantic rather than analytical and refined. Beethoven was trying out the newfangled sustaining pedal on the piano when he wrote this; subsequent advances in technology make it less necessary to stress it so much, and in the slow movement more sonic restraint all around might have been advisable. These are minor quibbles, though. It’s always a pleasure to see, as we often did during this performance, the smiles exchanged between the players after a particularly tricky passage, as if to say “we nailed it.”
As a final point, we should observe that this concert was given free of charge to the public through support from the Free For All Fund, part of the legacy (literally) of the late Charles Ansbacher. The full house at Peabody Hall attested to the soundness of the Fund’s ambition to increase the accessibility of classical music in Boston.