The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center established a new benchmark for the Gardner’s Sunday Concert Series in a through and through afternoon of memorable music making. This was my third concert there so far this season, and for a change, CMS began and ended pretty much on time. Surprising as well, it may seem, they had tuned their instruments before entering Calderwood Hall, sparing listeners of any sound beyond that of the music itself. Save for a few spoken words coming later in the program, CMS generated a rare quiet space for its listeners and, with no intermission, made music of premier order.
The players’ key accomplishment, though, would be their celebrating the composers—not themselves. We are all able to recall the admonitions of master mentors to their students ready for prime time—now forget about technique and just think about making music. Today’s musical world we have come to know is one of velocity and virtuosity, often at the expense of individuality. The six musicians at yesterday’s Gardner concert broke rank, proving they learned their mentors’ final lesson well. Despite plenteous technique with which to show off and to astound, these players opted for higher ground, vividly recreating the identities, personalities if you will, of each of the four composers they had chosen for an uncommon program. It might even be said that CMS thoroughly inhabited four unusual chamber music selections.
Quintet for Oboe and Strings by Arthur Bliss became a ravishing English affair, going from craggy to idyllic and just about everywhere else in its brew of complexity and synthesis. Another composer’s voice would be distinctly made out in CMS’s recreation of the Nocturne and Tarantella for Violin and Piano of Karol Szymanowski, his nocturnal mysteries and protracted dancing breathtakingly poised. Was anyone else wondering if Bernard Hermann might have found inspiration for his Psycho soundtrack (the scene with Janet Leigh at the wheel fleeing the city with her bank’s cash) from one of the Tarantella’s prominent themes?
The few words spoken during the concert came not only as a welcome but also as a brief introduction to Phantasy Quartet for Oboe, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 2 composed by Benjamin Britten at age 19. Oboist James Austin Smith’s preface to this piece was something of a caveat: “in it is clear indication of the kind of career that would lie ahead of him.” Reason enough, one supposes, to perform the youthful effort. Smith informed us that Britten went on to write three more works for the oboe, adding “if that sounds like a lot, to an oboist four pieces is a mountain of repertoire.” Together, Smith, Dautricourt, Neubauer, and Marica delivered Britten’s second opus into “music-land” enhancing the work with an exquisite marching stance, spirited playfulness, and thrilling rumination.
In particular, Smith’s exceptional fecundity covered the oboe’s outer reaches with ear-catching roundness at the top to rich resonance at the bottom, all these and those notes in between converged into a musicality that never tired the ear, not even for a New York second. His rapid-fire cadenza-like flair at the end of the Bliss burst full of purpose, the quartet of Nicolas Dautricourt and Benjamin Beilman, violins, Paul Neubauer, viola and Mihai Marica, cello, then finalizing this rarely heard piece.
Another youthful work, Quartet in A Minor for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 1 by a 17 year old Joseph Suk (later Dvořák’s son-in-law) sang out openly and innocently of another epoch. Nothing at all on the sleeve or, for that matter, nothing too close to the chest came from CMS who went straight to the heart of the quartet’s clear formal outlines and 19th-century drama as drawn by a prodigious teenager. Chien, Beilman, Newbauer, and Marica orchestrated Suk’s quartet with unbroken eloquence.
Benjamin Beilman dug into the Szymanowski with a stalwart violin in turn acquiescent to the loveliest of eerie harmonics. With Gloria Chien at the piano the outcome surpassed a mere listening exercise with some of the most wonderful, colorful collisions featuring piano tremolos and violin double stops I have ever encountered. And all this was close up, just yards away from my seat, bringing to an end a perfect escape from the norms of our musical world, many of us having justly met four composers anew, if not for the very first time.