Sunday afternoon saw a sold out Calderwood Hall at the Gardner Museum host Musicians from Marlboro in a program of elegant, refined and agonistic chamber works by Haydn, Schoenberg and Schumann. Young performers Michelle Ross, violin, Emily Deans, viola, Paul Wiancko and Gabriel Cabezas, cellos, along with Ida Levin, violin, and Michael Tree, viola, have been on tour in this extension of the Marlboro Music Festival, presenting this program at several Northeast locations. This concert was their final stop.
In many ways, the program was all about the heart, its rhythms, its yearning to love and its propensity to break. If harpsichordist Mark Kroll and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva are right in speculating that music harkens back to our earliest pre-linguistic experience of rhythms in the maternal body, then it is plausible that music is marked, more or less covertly, by the heartbeat that accompanies our lives from birth to death. It quickens when we dance, it slows down when we sleep, it pounds uncontrollably when we feel fear. The heartbeat was present in all of the works on this program, from the pulsating opening theme of Haydn’s Quartet, Op. 77, No. 1, to the explicit arrhythmia of Schoenberg’s Trio, Op. 45, and more discretely in Schumann’s Quartet, Op. 41, No. 2.
The two quartets were performed eloquently by violinists Michelle Ross, first and Ida Levin, second, violist Michael Tree and cellist Paul Wiancko. The Haydn was noteworthy for the lyrical playing of Ross in the first movement allegro, and an exceptionally moving adagio, plaintive and profound. The menuetto was taken at a good rhythm, with a forceful, even breathy trio and a haunting heartbeat motif. The Finale was played briskly with lively, sharp accents, evoking Haydn’s wit and humor in a completely successful performance.
Schoenberg’s Trio, Op. 45, was written during his recovery from a major heart attack. He explicitly noted that it reflects the delirium and sense of dislocation that he suffered, the rapid mood swings and the alternating peace and panic that he felt. Composed as a single movement consisting of three parts interspersed with two episodes, the piece is volatile, fragmentary and filled with terror. Levin, Deans and Cabezas captured the sense of raw trauma with which Schoenberg was grappling. The tragic intensity of Levin’s violin, the alert and energetic interjections of Cabezas’ cello and the understated yet forceful insights of Deans’ viola combined into a thrilling and chilling performance of a major Schoenberg work.
The program closed with Schumann’s delightfully off-kilter F Major Quartet, part of a set of three written within a few weeks in 1842, Schumann’s “year of chamber music.” He had written earlier that he was “looking forward to writing string quartets, as the piano is getting too limited for me.” Ross, Levin, Tree and Wiancko emphasized the elegance and coherence of this quartet, a difficult feat because it contains Schumann’s manic side deep in its core. The opening allegro was played more moderato than vivace, as though the performers wanted to stress Schumann’s debt to Haydn, in particular to the G Major Quartet they had played earlier. The variations in the following andante quasi variazione were beautifully and gracefully rendered, culminating in a subtle but troubling heartbeat. The tricky phrasing in the scherzo was negotiated nicely, as the movement gestured toward a danse macabre, with palpitating heartbeat in the trio section. In the allegro molto vivace finale Schumann’s chaotic, manic power—his way both of expressing and of keeping in check his own inner arrhythmias—erupted brilliantly, the performance ending on a discreetly unhinged note of triumph.