in: Reviews

August 5, 2013

BCMS Does Music of Schumann’s Circle

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As part of its Hamel Summer Series, the Boston Chamber Music Society presented “In the Footsteps of the Romantic Masters,” including music by Joseph Joachim Clara Wieck Schumann, and Robert Schumann, on Saturday night at the Charles Mosesian Theater in the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown.

The program opened with music by Joseph Joachim, violin prodigy and composer, protégé of Mendelssohn, friend of the Schumanns, and later a collaborator with Brahms. (He was also third cousin to Ludwig Wittgenstein and Paul Wittgenstein, the philosopher and the pianist.) Joachim’s compositions are heard less often now, relegated to student recitals or competition anthologies for violinists especially. So it was a treat to hear him performed with skill and panache. Erin Keefe (violin) and Anna Polonsky (piano) began with Joachim’s Andantino and Allegro Scherzoso in A Minor for violin and piano, Op. 1 (1848). Beginning with a seemingly familiar theme in the Andantino, the work in the second half turns virtuosic, especially for the violin, finishing with a tune that sounds inflected with the Hungarian music of the composer’s childhood. Keefe played with rich, mournful tone, while Polonsky gave dramatic delivery and a highly varied palette of touch; both maintained a good balance throughout.

For Joachim’s Romance in C Major for violin or viola and piano (1894), Polonsky returned to the stage with Beth Guterman Chu (viola). This is a flowing character piece, fascinatingly different from the usual; the viola part is declamatory, tender, impassioned yet never the voice of piercing angst of so many violin romances. Chu played with smooth bow changes, depth of tone, and a great feel for expansive melodic lines.

Ronald Thomas (cello) joined Keefe and Polonsky on stage for Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G Minor, Op. 17 (1846). Barbara Leish’s program note quotes Charles Rosen referring to the composer as “perhaps the chief disaster of the nineteenth century’s prejudice against female composers”. This major composition is worthy of more frequent performances, especially as it is a different take on German Romanticism from the one now enshrined in the canon; we are all the richer for our exposure to a more complete portrait of that musical age. The musicians gave a solid, subtly refined reading, marked by restraint, notably in the Scherzo, where the scintillation of a Mendelssohn or the lustiness of a Beethoven was modulated into a display of arch wit. There were a decided bite to the Andante and a vibrant fugato in the Allegretto finale.

Following intermission, all four musicians returned to the stage for Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 (1842). Robert offers a fierier, flashier Romanticism than Clara, and his piece was played with vigor and focus. The Scherzo: Molto vivace was an exciting scamper through g minor;  the lyrical Andante cantabile was, played with a warmth larger than four musicians. The feisty Finale: Vivace had grit, firm attacks, and a playfully intense spirit of competition across the musical lines brought a rousing end to the concert.

A note about venue: the Charles Mosesian Theater is a comfortable space with raked seating for unobstructed views. It seems more often used for plays than music, and the performers struggled with the rubber stage covering as chairs had to be lifted, not slid, to comfortable positions. Perhaps because of that floor covering, or perhaps because this is more a black-box theater space, I found the acoustic attenuated throughout the concert, and I missed the overtones and upper partials that define timbres and enhance resonance for live performances.

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