in: Reviews

February 25, 2013

Nationalism in Chamber Music


Last night the Boston Chamber Music Society presented in concert works representing different national traditions in music. Though the idioms changed and performers rotated across the three compositions, the level of performances remained high, as one expects from BCMS.

The sparse audience that braved the wet snow for the trek to Sanders Theatre set aside their grousing about the weather and settled in for the concert. Dimitri Murrath (viola) and Mihae Lee (piano) took the stage for Mendelssohn’s Sonata in C minor for viola and piano. Composed in 1824, this work was not published until 1966. The program notes, like R. Larry Todd’s Mendelssohn:  A Life in Music, do not delve into this delay in publication, which I think is an interesting question. Wagner did much to tarnish the reputation of Mendelssohn (I’ve always imagined some degree of jealousy factored into this), and to date there Stephen Somary and The Mendelssohn Project are still working to compile a complete list of his compositions as well as a full critical edition of his works. Did the tarnishing, and denying, reception of Mendelssohn postpone the publication of this viola sonata? Or did it fall afoul of prejudice against the viola in favor of the violin? In any event, a pity:  the work is a delight. This sonata is greater than the oft-heard ebullience of Mendelssohn, and has a remarkable tenderness and depth, along with hints of melancholia, not often associated with this composer. At the same time, the work remains graceful and exciting. Murrath and Lee gave a delightful performance of this work:  in well-balanced, tight accord with one another, they maintained the flowing conversational interplay of this music. The piano began the Adagio opening in a ruminative vein; the viola joined in, lushly dark and ponderous. Then the Allegro arrives, music of an impassioned energy; beautifully realized, Murrath and Lee maintained a forward momentum without sacrificing the lyrical gentleness or introspection. The Menuetto danced in a wistful yet sturdy vein; at home on viola, this music is also heard in Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 1 in c, where it takes on a different character in that tempo and orchestration. The finale, Andante con variazioni, outlined a range of colors, timbres, emotions, and indeed forms.

After German Classicism, Hungarian Modernism:  Harumi Rhodes (violin) and Julie Albers (cello) took the stage for Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7 (1914). This composition opens in sonata-allegro form, drawing on Hungarian folk tunes; the folk music gives this piece a degree of immediate familiarity from the start. Kodály combines that with a more modern musical sensibility which becomes more prominent as the work unfolds. Technically the work is challenging, and it is also somewhat atypical in its instrumentation. None of that interfered with this performance. Rhodes and Albers embodied this music, bringing out its twin characteristics. The result was a seamless combination of traditional melodic elements with Modernist compositional tendencies; the result was infectious fun, embraced by the audience.

Following intermission, all four musicians returned to the stage for Fauré’s Piano Quartet in c, op. 15 (1879). The program quoted Aaron Copland describing how Fauré captures “all the earmarks of the French temperament:  harmonic sensitivity, impeccable taste, Classic restraint, and a love of clear lines and well-made proportions.” (Copland writes something similar in On Music, but I cannot vouch for the source of this specific comment; I repeat it here as printed in the program.) This remark expresses what so many of us love in Fauré’s music, while also identifying the challenges to any performance. Rhodes, Murrath, Albers, and Lee captured the very organic feel of Fauré’s piano quartet and gave us a balanced rendition of this work, one full of varieties of color, astute interpretative choices, and exquisite proportions. I hope we will hear more of this ensemble in the future.

The concert concluded, we bundled ourselves into coats and gloves; as the heavy wooden doors of Memorial Hall were shouldered open onto a vision of continued snowfall, grousing about the weather began again.

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.


  1. What in the world does your second sentence mean? It’s a garble, and sounds at first like a put-down of the performance, which you obviously do not intend. I’m guessing that you meant “the idiom changed, but the high level of performance did not change.” However, that middle phrase “performers rotated across the three compositions” destroys all clarity. Better rewrite it, because I’m guessing that many readers will expect a negative review to follow that second sentence.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — February 25, 2013 at 12:44 pm

  2. P.S. Yes, the concert was wonderful, and well worth the snow-trek going home.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — February 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm

  3. I was struggling to italicize the quotation when Alan Levitan intervened with my very thoughts.
    The performances were outstanding, but the review’s diction not so.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — February 25, 2013 at 12:53 pm

  4. Perhaps “performers rotated AMONG…” would have been better than “performers rotated across the three compositions”?

    But this old hag retired from editing. (… from BMInt, however, not other tasks.)

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 27, 2013 at 2:37 pm

  5. One can certainly rotate across the ice and one can metaphorically travel across the centuries, so why can’t one rotate across the centuries? Sounds ok to these ears, though one might get motion sick while attempting it.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — February 27, 2013 at 3:24 pm

  6. From the FreeDictionary: rotate
    1. To turn around on an axis or center.
    2. To proceed in sequence; take turns or alternate: Interns will rotate through…

    Read through, not across…
    But shall we let it rest? and rotate no more?

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 27, 2013 at 8:39 pm

  7. My original comment had nothing to do with “rotating across.” The grammatical mess has since been corrected by the editor, I assume, so that my criticism no longer has a referent in the newly edited second sentence of the review. (But believe me, the ambiguous quagmire was decidedly more egregious than anything suggested by “rotating across”!)

    Comment by Alan Levitan — February 28, 2013 at 1:19 pm

  8. Alan (& other readers) — I’ve discovered that corrections of this sort can be sent directly to the BMInt via e-mail using the address It is effective for getting corrections made without embarrassing the author and editor, and without rendering the correction unintelligible. It’s worked for me.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 28, 2013 at 5:42 pm

  9. You mean, without embarrassing the author or publisher.

    Alan, if I had your email, I would respond directly; I never saw the original posting, so could not imagine any other objection, other than that one. Silly of me.

    Joe, you are a good soul to suggest this; when I edited, Lee and I took this approach whenever it was necessary — which occasionally was the case, but truthfully not very often, given the number of postings and the time limit under which we operated. That’s why I spent so much time, before sending in reviews and articles for posting, checking titles, names of composers I did not know, dates, &c. Believe me, there were many errors I caught, and many, many thanks from writers for doing so. I remain eternally grateful for their continuing comments of thanks. There were remarkably few grammatical errors, but occasional need for clarification or simplification. Also, I tried my best to adhere to a style sheet which I drew up with Lee’s concurrence and preferences. I used D. Kern Holoman’s Writing About Music [ital. title; I can’t], a worthwhile pamphlet suggested to me by reviewer Virginia Newes.

    Nowadays, I am too busy on my own academic research, gleefully resumed, to read BMInt consistently, but I do send occasional corrections directly to Lee. Not often enough, I warrant.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — February 28, 2013 at 8:27 pm

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