The crowd of several hundred who braved biting wind and freezing temperatures on Sunday night to hear the Boston Chamber Music Society’s latest concert at Sanders Theatre was rewarded with a fine trio of musical offerings. Each BCMS concert features a different lineup; this program utilized three of its regular artists and one guest. BCMS members Ida Levin (violin), Marcus Thompson (viola), and Raman Ramakrishnan (cello) were joined by pianist Benjamin Hochman, a faculty member at Longy. The musicians were paired off for the first two pieces and assembled together for the last—a unifying programming decision that would be welcome at more chamber music concerts.
The evening began with Mozart’s Duo for Violin and Viola in B-flat Major, K. 424 (1783), pairing Ida Levin and Marcus Thompson. Although this composition does not show the viola off quite as well as Mozart’s K. 423 companion duo, Levin and Thompson gave a finely balanced performance that treated their instruments on more or less equal musical terms. They also followed Mozart’s tempi markings in both letter and spirit, arriving at an interpretation that was on the slower side of normal without dragging. The theme and variations that closed the piece was especially well done, and the performance was talked about by many audience members during the later intermission.
Before intermission arrived, however, Ramakrishnan and Hochman took the stage to play Benjamin Britten’s Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 65 (1961). This piece, originally written for the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, is much more episodic than the Mozart; its five movements come across as a more of a suite than a unified musical work. Without this formal unity to fall back on, much of the piece’s gravitas hinges on the cellist’s ability to make the individual motivic transformations interesting in their own right, since there is not a strong arc within the individual movements or to the piece as a whole. The players rose appropriately to the challenge.
The first movement of the sonata began with Ramakrishnan sawing sternly away at his cello. Although much of his musical material was built around a simple motive of a melodically descending fifth, a pregnant silence nevertheless hung in the hall as the final iteration came to a close. The tempo picked up with the second movement’s extended pizzicato passages, with which the cellist was at times diabolical, playful, annoyed, and more in his shadings. This appeared to be the audience’s favorite section of the piece.
Hochman’s contribution pushed out of the supporting role box more in the third movement, a tender elegy that was neither agonizing nor grief-filled. Britten’s music does not depict a raw wound, but more of a sometimes-heavy reminiscence of a well-lived life. (This may explain why its quiet end did not have quite the impact of the first movement’s, although the interpretation and material were both more interesting.) Then followed a peculiar, cabaret song-like march and the rapid pulses of the last movement’s perpetual motion. Because the material was so episodic, a stronger sense of Ramakrishnan and Hochman’s musicianship proved elusive.
Following intermission, all four instrumentalists took the stage for Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G Minor, Op. 25 (1861). This work’s arc and heft more than counterbalanced the Britten piece’s wanderings. Unfortunately, the quartet ran directly into a common problem: Thompson’s viola was almost always drowned out by the other instruments. This was not so much an issue deriving from acoustics or the composer’s partwriting, but rather from the interpretation. Even allowing for a little extra stridency from Ida Levin’s violin playing, Thompson almost always played quieter and with less vibrato than his violinist and cellist counterparts, even in passages where the violin and viola are presented on what should be equal terms. The result was a squelching of an important musical voice and an impoverishment of the sound. This was somewhat surprising, given the fine balance displayed in the Mozart duo.
Aside from this issue, many good things could be said about the performance. The ending of the first movement was well balanced, and Hochman went to town with his featured role in the second. The third movement had a strong vitality to it and a lovely, sublime ending. The energetic fourth movement, labeled a rondo in the Gypsy style, was a varied showcase of an ending; these rapid passages saw the quartet more as a group of equal contributors. It was a pity that this was not displayed more.