The Sunday afternoon concert at Calderwood Hall began with lightweight Beethoven, the Piano Trio No. 11 in G Major Op. 121a, 10 Variations on “Ich bin der Schenider Kakadu.” Before the theme’s statement, reminiscent of Mozart’s birdcatcher aria, Beethoven treats us to a long and powerful adagio introduction of surprising drama, considering the ditty it precedes. The 10 variations are of variable interest. While some are mere instrumental showpieces, others, especially the final, are striking examples of late Beethoven. The performances by sumptuous violinist Scott St. John, emotive cellist Matthew Zalkind, and rippling pianist Gabriele Carcano immediately revealed the sterling qualities of Musicians from Marlboro as well as the mixed qualities of the Gardner’s cube. Those of us on the floor who had sightlines to the string players felt a close and immediate connection with them and a more remote involvement with the lidless piano whose sound favored those in the hall’s upper reaches. Indeed, from my seat on the floor, the piano seemed to issue almost as much from the ceiling as from its case. In the Kakadu trio Zalkind’s cello, beautiful and refined as it was, nevertheless overpowered for this listener who was on its favored axis.
Though without much warmth, Calderwood Hall has a pleasing tonal neutrality which gets out of the way of the performance. With sound production as beautiful as it was from the Marlboro string players, no ameliorating resonance from the room was wanted or needed. The players also unfailingly displayed the exuberance and good cheer we expect from the wilds of Vermont, in genial expressions both facially and musically, though at times of deep pathos the faces (especially Zalkind’s) conveyed toothache as much as Weltshmerz.
Thomas Adès’ string quartet Arcadiana (1994) was meant as a representation of a mystical place where art is created—and how appropriate it to perform it in the Gardner Museum, violist Emily Deans told us. She was perhaps right about that; the audience seemed to think so. While she told us that the seven movements would be played without breaks, they were not. Thus it was easy to follow the program for this listener in his first hearing.
Adès writes colorfully and idiomatically for string quartet and extends its vocabulary in very pictorial ways, from summoning night and chaos to invoking Edwardian England with references which sound specific even if they are not. The first movement opens with slides in seconds and minor thirds from the upper strings punctuated with pizzicati from the cello before morphing into something reminiscent of La Valse—this to represent Venezia Notturno. Hoedown harmonics were a bit insectivorous, but occasional lyric turns elicited smiles and signs of recognition.
Movement III, Auf dem Wasser zu singen, had more pizzes—this time with swells, downward slides, Silly Symphony tremoli and hive buzzing—all delivered with profound engagement even when it sounded like howling and cat scratching.
The fourth movement, Et…(tango mortale) was rather frothier and more polite than one would have expected. In the sixth movement, O Albion, we had the saddest music in the world. Yes, we thought of Elgar, but also of Barber, Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and the famous Beethoven “Cavatina.” The cello opened the Lethe (river of forgetfulness) final movement with a two-note motto sounding like “you-who,” which was shared in various ranges by the other players. According to the Gardner’s annotator Herbert Glass, “…the music is a haunted reminder of how serial technique can suggest tonality—or perhaps the reverse.” Well if he says so…
Violinist Michele Ross joined Zarkand and Carcano for Fauré’s Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 120. All three players were generous of tone and spirit, executing at a very high level, but without merely reveling in their virtuosity, and they thankfully avoided any pretense of French restraint. In the third movement the octaves in the strings were supernally perfect in their tuning and even the portamenti were completely simultaneous. Carcano’s piano playing throughout was fully integrated, well-modulated and stunningly accurate. Zarkand projected grand manner authority as well as gorgeous tones and Zalkind completely embodied his part. This was top-drawer chamber playing.
Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E Minor Op. 44, No. 2 was the closer. Though they formed an ad hoc foursome, Ross, St. John, Deans and Zalkind, suffered none of the failings of such. They gave Mendelssohn all of the treatment and inflection owed to a first tier composer, delivering the work with a detailed and committed, old-fashioned, muscular interpretation. Ross set the tone with lovely slides and formidable production and the others followed suit. This was excellent string quartet playing, and I missed nothing of the expected risk-taking and unanimity of a fulltime foursome. Over and over they took chances and prevailed, though the final Presto was perhaps a bit too sun-dappled and not at all agitato.