The late afternoon of Saturday January 19, 2013 goes down as a milestone in my concert-going. At Boston Chamber Music Society’s concert in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, two pianists matched up as one in an absolutely incomparable performance of Debussy’s La Mer. Not enough can be said about Mihae Lee and Randall Hodgkinson in an undeniably awesome rendezvous with this French masterwork of masterworks of seascape and sonority.
If I nodded off a bit during the Adagio of Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet that just may have been the calm before the storm, if you will. Having been thoroughly energized and hanging on every note, every nuance, every color, every movement depicting waves and winds by the incredible dynamic duo of Lee and Hodgkinson, I really wished they could come back and do just what they did all over again! And I would have to say that what they did went well beyond “performance.” A magnificent encounter might be a better way of describing this one-of-a kind happening, milestone, as it were. Until that afternoon, I could not have imagined any arrangement of Debussy’s extraordinary orchestral tour de force ever becoming what it became with these “fabulous” (a description of the performance I overheard at intermission) four hands at one piano. We heard a very apt, expert arrangement deriving from the composer’s version with quite a few of the performers’ own changes and additions from the orchestral score.
I also overheard Lee after their performance masterpiece asserting she was “scared.” Watching their arms, her left (she was on the primo part) and his right (he was on Segundo) avoid collisions, watching their hands crossing over and interlocking sometimes at a good clip may have been what scared her, but all of that could only draw listeners further, deeper in.
After intermission came Stephen Harke’s “The King of the Sun” (1988) for string trio and piano. Its opening movement “Personages in the night guided by the phosphorescent tracks of snails” was yet another knockout. Each of the five movements took their cues from five paintings of Joan Miró, which were projected on an overhead screen. Hartke noted, “Just as Miró’s painting is both whimsical and serious, I have sought to accomplish the same thing in my music.” The interlude also was stunning throughout. While the other pieces sparked they did not always do so on all cylinders, such as with “Personages and birds rejoicing at the arrival of night,” which outstayed its welcome.
Calling upon an array of formidable string techniques, violinist Harumi Rhodes, Violist Marcus Thompson, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and Randall Hodgkinson, together, were at their very best, being top-notch.
Violinist Ida Levin joined the above string players in String Quartet in B-flat major, Hob. III: 78, “Sunrise” (can we remember all that?). After the first round with the exposition of the Allegro con spirito, the quartet settled into the Haydn, creating loveliness in sustained harmonies and perkiness in the faster phrases. Curiously, the final chord of the final movement, to my ear, was missing it lowest note, the root of the chord, the note that provides complete finality. The cellist having to play a triple stop could very well have been the cause. Haydn experts, is this supposed to happen, is Haydn up to more tricks?
Ottorino Respighi’s setting in Italian of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “The Sunset” for voice and string quartet concluded the afternoon on a down note. Il Tramonto never found its stride with BSCM. Expression went the way of heart stabs. The strings often splintered phrases while the singing from soprano Karyl Ryczek gave too much emphasis to individual notes. In all, what should have been a flowing pastoral, instead was a static heart bleeder. Still more, unfortunately, the balances were quite a bit off, and, unlike the question of hearing one or two notes in the Haydn, far more than a few notes escaped audibility.
Yet I can’t close without reminding readers that Boston Chamber Music Society’s programming consistently earns my accolades for moving in fresh directions and bold combinations.