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BCMS: Endings and Beginnings


Opening night at Sanders Theatre for the Boston Chamber Music Society’s 31st season yesterday featured three magnificent works from three different centuries. The Mozart Violin Sonata in A Major, K. 526, is a late work, falling between Eine kleine nachtmusik and Don Giovanni in the Köchel catalogue. Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor piano duet, D. 940, was composed in his final year and published the year after he died. In contrast, Walton’s Piano Quartet in D Minor is an early work, written when Walton was 16, and full of youthful creativity and exuberance.

The wonderful A Major sonata is contemporary with Don Giovanni and is generally viewed as the culmination of Mozart’s expansion of the form, here giving equal weight to the keyboard and the violin. Unfortunately, there were balance problems and Harumi Rhodes’ violin was drowned out by Mihae Lee’s piano in the first movement. The balance was better in the ensuing Andante, one of Mozart’s finest, a duet that can convey great tenderness and vulnerability. The Rondo finale featured a long, intricate theme in the piano, here played with commentary from the violin, interspersed with sprightly episodes and glittering runs on both piano and violin.

Schubert’s f minor fantasy is one of the great piano duets—a product of the staggering outpouring of magnificent works in Schubert’s final year. Lee was joined by Randall Hodgkinson to give us an existentialist reading of the piece, giving the normally sad, tragic main theme an urgent feeling, emphasizing drama, especially in the Allegro Vivace Scherzo, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The performance was well-received.

Like someone daring to orate publicly for the first time in a newly-acquired foreign language, the young Walton speaks boldly in his Piano Quartet, attempting to marry the interiority and decadence of Ravel to the primitivism of Stravinsky. In terms of sheer music-making, this was the high point of the concert. The trio of Rhodes, violin, Marcus Thompson, viola, new BCMS member Raman Ramakrishnan, cello with Hodgkinson, piano, gave us a lively, honest rendering of the Walton, conveying its originality and freshness without hiding its weaknesses. The strings gave us a beautiful, sensitive, enigmatic Dorian opening, joined by the piano in producing a Ravellian atmosphere and overall a very nicely played Allegramente. The balance among the instruments was perfect and Ramakrishnan fit right in as if he had been there all along. The scherzo was all angular sounds and sharp rhythms, all in constant flux punctuated by sharp piano chords. Following was a lovely Ondine-like watery Andante tranquillo, lyrical and moody, the theme handed from one instrument to another smoothly and naturally. In sharp contrast, the Allegro molto finale was lively and savage, with Bartok-like jabs and crashing off-beat stabbing blocks of sound, material from earlier movements returning in the cyclical structure, leading to a frenetic cadence.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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  1. I have great respect for musicians of the quality that played the concert last night. They do things that seem impossible to me – playing thousands of notes completely correctly and often with great verve. But one thing they cannot do is hear the sound that the audience hears. On the average stage the balance in the hall is a great mystery to the performer. So it falls to a reviewer to comment on it in the hope that the performance will be better next time.

    But there some general rules that it is very helpful to think about. And one of them is that the audience – or at least some of the audience – would like to hear most of the notes that a composer wrote, at least most of the time. This is especially true when a modern concert piano is combined with a small string ensemble. Concert pianists seem to be trained to carry every note to the rear of a hall even when a full audience is playing. Many of them seem also to believe that when a score is marked forte or (heaven forbid) fortissimo they should bang away as hard as they can.

    They should abjure. Both the Mozart sonata and the piece for four hands were written for a fortepiano, which was incapable of the kind of power a modern piano can produce. I once attended a concert of Liszt by a very famous pianist in a large music room in a private house. The pianist felt he needed to play at concert volume – and the result was painfully loud. I escaped to the foyer behind a closed door, and found the host doing the same. “Its awfully loud in there” I said. “That’s why I am here” he said.

    There is a wonderful review in this site that addresses this problem by Tamar Hestrin Grader.

    She says “I do, however, disagree with the general assertion that a fortepiano can play softer than a modern Steinway – the Steinway can produce nearly inaudible whispers; it’s just that very few pianists have the courage – not to mention the technical skill – to achieve it. Granted, it is a harder task on a modern piano, but it is not impossible.”

    While the instrumental balance in the second movement of the Schubert was better than in the first, I found the piano consistently too aggressive both in the second movement and the third. I kept wondering what would Mozart have thought about the playing his piece on a modern Steinway by a pianist who did not seem to realize that she was clobbering the violin – and also in my opinion, the music.

    The F minor fantasy had the same problem. The dynamic range varied from forte to fortissimo. Only the beautiful first theme broke the barrage – with a sometimes lyrical mezzo-forte. The piece has more emotional range than that. I missed it.

    Comment by David Griesinger — October 28, 2013 at 4:37 pm

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