The Boston Chamber Music Society has been in business for three decades because they are doing a huge amount right. Interesting, offbeat pieces keep turning up on their programs, and the core group of artists and guests remain very high-caliber.
Sunday night at Sanders Theater featured two pieces for two cellos, with an excellent guest cellist from Montreal, Denis Brott. The first piece, “Suite for Two Cellos and Piano” by Gian Carlo Menotti, featuring Brott, Ronald Thomas, and pianist Mihae Lee, was new to me and most likely to most of the audience. Best-known for his popular operas (Amahl and the Night Visitor, etc.) and as the longtime companion of Samuel Barber, Menotti was commissioned to write this lovely trio by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in honor of Gregor Piatigorsky. What a wonderful introduction to Menotti! It begins with a simple piano part and two lyrical cello parts answering each other, and passes through an assortment of moods, from old-fashioned heart-on-the-sleeve romanticism to manic jazziness. Lightweight and fun, it was a joy to hear, and the performances were lovely. My only quibble is I would have liked more piano sound; the lid was on the short stick.
The famous Shostakovich Piano Quintet received a tremendous performance by Lee, Thomas, violist Marcus Thompson (the Society’s Music Director), and violinists Harumi Rhodes and Ida Levin. This seems to be the season of breaking strings, and during the lengthy fugue Ronald Thomas’s cello was the latest victim. It took a while to get it back in tune, and when the quintet began again, I was amazed how much more focused they sounded even though they had been terrific to begin with. The playing had more energy and intensity and piece more brilliance. I heard the Takács Quartet Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin play it in November, but this felt like an entirely new experience. Harumi Rhodes was extraordinary as first violinist, and she and Ida Levin were superb together. Mihae Lee was her customary excellent self, and the two other strings played beautifully. Thompson dispatched the many viola solos with style and beauty.
The Quintet’s history is noteworthy, like other works of Shoshtakovich. It was composed in 1940, between the outbreak of the war in Europe and the Nazi invasion of Russia, and the premiere offered, in the words of Rostislav Dubinsky, first violinist of the Borodin Quartet, “the last ray of light before the future sank into a dark gloom.” Impressed by the composer’s First String Quartet (he wrote 15), the Moscow-based Beethoven Quartet had asked Shostakovich to write a quintet, with the composer himself at the piano. The work turned out to be one of his most popular, as well as the least likely to upset Stalin. The performance was a great success, and went on to win the controversial Stalin Prize, which came with a huge (100,000 rubles) cash award.
Free of the composer’s usual grotesqueries and ironies, the quintet is still instantly recognizable as Shostakovich, accessible, musically compelling, especially its massive prelude and fugues in the first two movements. The beautiful, slow fourth movement hints at a wrenching sadness, quickly dispelled in the finale.
In Shostakovich and Stalin, Solomon Volkov wrote that “the Piano Quintet breathes with the weary wisdom of a person who has just recovered from a serious illness. Here Shostakovich stepped back in time from Mahler to Bach…. The Soviet intelligentsia, recently drowning in the horrors of the Terror, wanted to surface for a brief moment to look around and catch its breath. A contemporary recalled that the piece appeared like a “precious crystal of timeless truth.”
In Schubert’s final year, 1828, he penned not only his extraordinary last three piano sonatas but also the wondrous String Quintet in C Major, D. 956. The program notes suggested that “Schubert’s innovation was to have the fifth instrument in his Quintet be a cello, rather than the viola of Mozart’s and Beethoven’s quintets,” but Boccherini used this combination long before Schubert. Regardless, Schubert’s work of genius received here as good a performance as it gets. Ida Levin was the spectacular first violinist throughout, and once again she and Harumi Rhodes played wonderfully together. The two cellists were well-matched, and the gorgeous second movement received an achingly beautiful performance by all, with Levin playing just exquisitely. It was Levin’s show throughout this piece; her spirited work was mesmerizing and made this performance one of the best I’ve ever heard. Schubert never heard a performance of this piece, as the public premiere occurred in 1850, with publication a few years after.
The Boston Chamber Music Society’s Summer Series (Saturdays at 8pm at Arsenal Center, Watertown) begins on August 3 with a most interesting program: Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio and Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat major. The location has been convenient and popular for BCMS Summer audiences.