in: Reviews

January 27, 2014

Britten, Harbison and Beethoven Delivered

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Benjamin Britten’s Suite for Violin and Piano, Op. 6, John Harbison’s Variations for Clarinet, Violin and Piano, and Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, Op. 16, constituted the revealing and exciting program on Sunday at Concord Chamber Music Society. The pieces have in common special powers and coherence that require more than usual depth of understanding and interpretive ability, and that is what the Concord players delivered.

The concert was preceded by a short program from students of Project STEP, the organization which for 30 years has sought out and nurtured talented young musicians from the Boston community. The effect was not only heart-warming, but it served as a reminder of Britten’s and Beethoven’s youth when they composed the works heard here.

The Britten Suite is seldom heard but it is a gem of a piece that explores the miniature form with a combination of old-school Viennese charm and cutting-edge modernism. It was given an especially sensitive and thrilling reading here by Wendy Putnam (violin) and Vytas Baksys (piano). The brief (almost non-existent) Introduction was played as a piercing cry of anguish, leading to a complex interpretation of the March that shifted between playfulness and savagery, bringing out the Stravinsky-inspired elements. The following moto perpetuo was successively fretful, dynamic and mysterious. The ensuing Lullaby, the first of Britten’s Nocturnes, was dreamlike, time suspended, wispy and finally evanescent. The final Waltz was rendered as burlesque mockery of both the Viennese and French style of waltz, a subversive denunciation of stultifying conventions with strong Expressionist features.

Harbison’s variations can be a bit impenetrable, but this performance was deeply intelligent, and the players, Putnam and Baksys, joined by clarinetist Thomas Martin, brought out the sense and meaning with utmost clarity. The Spirit-Dance variations were characterized by an air of liquid undulation and disembodiment, ending in the fifth variation with an uncanny and mysterious surge of energy. The Body-Dance portion was expressive of bodily weight, earthy, dense, with echoes of The Rite of Spring. The Soul Dance variations were successively inwardly-directed, reflective and contemplative, working things through in the Fughetta, then transporting us into a soulful waltz, and arriving finally at the Aria as the long-sought destination. The Finale was played with sheer brilliance, indeed a dervish-like culmination, followed by a softly reflective epilogue, looking back over all that had transpired.

The Beethoven Quintet was clearly inspired by Mozart’s K. 452 Quintet—the same instruments, same key signature, same overall structure of the movements. It was played here as a passing of the baton, or as Steve Ledbetter said in his pre-concert lecture, Beethoven asserting that “Mozart may be gone, but you’ve got me now.” In the wrong hands it can sometimes sound a bit wandering and aimless, especially in the first movement. Not so Sunday: the winds, Keisuke Wakao (oboe), Richard Ranti (bassoon), Richard Sebring (horn), plus clarinetist Thomas Martin, gave the work a clear sense of purpose right from the smooth, elegant and portentous opening notes of the Grave introduction, Baksys responding with a sparkling Mozartean piano. The five were lively throughout in their interactions, acutely attuned and responsive, nicely balanced. The ensuing andante cantabile, elegant and gracious, was Beethoven acknowledging that he too had to know how to be tender as well as rough, instrument by instrument demonstrating the ability. It was, in essence, Beethoven receiving a master class from Mozart, then taking up the mantle for himself in the final movement. The Rondo was joyful, creating momentum out of the dance-like features, giving the sense that Beethoven was now on his own, looking forward, ready to go it alone.

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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