Cellist Ronald Thomas, the artistic director emeritus of the Boston Chamber Music Society, has a charmingly self-deprecating stage persona. He opened BCMS’s Saturday night concert at Watertown’s Mosesian Theater, with an aside about one of the three composers on the program: “I hope everybody’s going to be having fun with Voříšek’s Rondo [for Cello and Piano Op. 2], because I’m not going to be.” Well, the cello work was florid and rangy—Thomas was all over the fingerboard and beyond—but I’m not sure it was much fun for the audience or pianist Mihae Lee either. It was more redolent of a Diabelli exercise than a work of romantic mastery. Furthermore, his referring to featured composers Václav Hugo Voříšek and Franz Lachner as “masters” prompted my speculation as to what superlative to apply to their programmatic partner, Schubert.
Thomas’s cello line was certainly operatic, as is his wont, but what I appreciated more than the predictable and innocuous composition was an improvement compared with last season in the projection of the instruments within the space. Of the piano, others have already commented here that the Yamaha C-7 is even and clear of tone (as was Mihae Lee’s pearly and clear execution). But what surprised and pleased me (and I disclose I was primed to listen for it) was the subtly reverberant field created in the nearly anechoic theater through the electronic ministrations of well-known acoustics researcher David Griesinger. His stripped-down Laeres systems, consisting of eight strategically placed speakers and some advanced computer processing burnished the space most pleasantly. Sure the effect was subtle; Griesinger told me afterward that one has to train one’s ears to hear it, but turning the system off experimentally after the concert certainly proved that it had been achieving something when it had been on. We did not hear a Baths of Caracalla reverberance; instead the system generated a mild legato aura, which satisfyingly placed the audience within the same frame as the musicians. And yes, this improvement could allow the Mosesian Theater, with its comfortable seating and good sightlines to become a suitable venue for chamber music—at least when the rumbling air handlers are turned off.
Two pieces by Franz Lachner for soprano, clarinet and piano “Auf Fügeln des Gesangs” (On Wings of Song), and “Seit ich ihn gesehn” (Since I Saw Him), to poems by Heine and Chamisso, were step-ups in quality (Spohr’s Six German Songs for soprano and piano with clarinet would have been even better) and the performers seemed much more engaged. Lachner’s pieces with major/minor alterations and effective word painting sounded much more Schubertian than Voříšek’s work had. The blend of clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois and soprano Hyunah Yu was extraordinary. Yu’s production had an instrumental clarity without stinting on warmth of inflection. Above, upon, and below the staff, both artists produced an absolutely registerless evenness—but Yu gave us something special. She locked each one of us eye to eye; she raised her visage beseechingly heavenward for inspiration and found it; she wept downcast in sorrow; she glowed with pleasure. . . . In short, she is a compleat Lieder singer as much as a non-German can be, reminding me of the young Elly Ameling.
The highpoint of the program was Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,” D. 965. De Guise-Langlois and Lee opened with luxurious leisureliness, taking time to savor roses a-plenty, and setting up Yu’s compelling entrance to perfection. One might have yearned for a more Schubertian sound world than this trio’s modern romantic approach, though. The performance [here] of Elly Ameling with Jörg Demus and Hans Deinzer makes for an interesting comparison. But when at last the stanza “Spring Will Come” arrived, the BCMS threesome transcended any critical carping.
After a 30-minute intermission violinist Stephen Copes joined Thomas and Lee for Schubert’s familiar Piano Trio in B-flat Major, D. 898. It was great finally to hear Lee step out of the accompanimental role. Thomas intoned Schubert’s big tunes with his signature nobility of utterance and rapturous expression, and Copes contributed a milder but still essential sweetness.
The Andante un poco second movement began with a grandly lyrical outpouring from Thomas, while Copes provided a quieter expressiveness, and Lee mediated well between them. There was much robust push and pull of the beat, and there were striking moments of reflectiveness and inwardness.
The songfulness of the fourth movement brought us back to “Schubert on the Rocks.” In this relentlessly but divinely repetitive movement, the seasoned pros of BCMS knew exactly when to hold back and when to charge. Was Schubert sometimes freighted with more inflection than he needed? The appreciative crowd felt otherwise.