Sunday afternoon the Gardner Museum presented Chamber Music from Lincoln Center in early-19th-century German classical music including sonatas by Beethoven (piano) and Schubert (cello and piano) paired with a Mendelssohn string quintet. The three works were a window into a historical moment in music, showing the richness of this tradition and these composers movingly.
The program opened with Alessio Bax performing Beethoven’s Sonata in A♭, op. 110 (1821–1822). The Moderato cantabile molto espressivo opened with a gentleness fitting the lyrical theme, and Bax maintained a sense of delicacy and refinement much of this sonata-like movement. The effect was akin to a Romantic berceuse, not without tension and drama but ease and grace persisted. Richard Rodda’s notes, seemingly provided by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, discussed the composer’s fraught relationship with his nephew, Karl, and legal wranglings as Ludwig attempted to wrest custody of Karl from his mother; this five-year saga resolved shortly before the composition of this sonata. In light of that background, is this sonata a way for the composer to memorialize his love for his nephew, building in intensity and drama to encapsulate and work through this tumultuous episode? Bax’s rendering of the first movement certainly sounded like this. The Allegro molto continued this turmoil, now in a race that was both hectic and fraught. The scherzo-like movement borrowed themes from Austrian folksongs, but the dance gave voice to the conflicting interplay of people, roles, motivations in the real-life drama and in the music. The Adagio, ma non troppo was funereal, while the Arioso dolente – Fuga became a powerful, heart-wrenching elegy. The Allegro, ma non troppo opened with a delicacy recalling the beginning, but which could not withstand the immolating onslaught of the impassioned conclusion. The story Bax told in this music meshed with Rodda’s historiographic account, which is not to say that this music is wholly programmatic. Formal innovations in the movements and the sheer force of the music itself brought invigorating life to the composition.
Bax returned to the stage with cellist Andreas Brantelid for the second work on the program—Schubert’s Sonata in A minor for cello and piano (Arpeggione), D. 821 (1824). Written for that short-lived and long-defunct instrument, this music can sound like a transcription or a party-trick piece in lesser hands—a “look what I can do” moment rather than a foray into sublime music. Happily Bax and Brantelid gave this work their all and the performance was a treat to hear. The Allegro moderato was dispatched with ease and grace. The recurring theme gives this sonata-form movement the aspect of a rondo; Brantelid especially varied the colors and tone of the cello’s line, bringing a wealth of expression to this music. The Adagio was a study in soulful lyricism, and the solo cello bridge to the finale was beautifully phrased and paced. The concluding Allegretto opened in a quietly playful vein. When the writing turned virtuosic, the spirit of play remained. Bax and Brantelid deployed a wide range of dynamics which a smaller hall allows, with the piano passages quiet and subtle, the forte passages rich and full without being overpowering. This was a profound, thoughtful, and utterly moving. While Rodda considers this “a friendly specimen of Biedermeier Hausmusik,” Brantelid and Bax imbued the friendly tunefulness with a profundity that elevated the performance to one worthy of the greatest of houses.
In the concluding work, Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1 in A, op. 18 (1826, revised 1832), we heard Shmuel Ashkenasi and Pamela Frank (violins), Benjamin Beilman and Yura Lee (violas), and Andreas Brantelid (cello). The second viola added an intriguing voice. The Allegro con moto was a study in refinement, becoming more emphatic as the work progressed. The Intermezzo: Andante sostenuto was delicate and deep, while the Scherzo: Allegro di molto opened with a fleet fugato, the theme announced in the viola. Refined, still, but never dull or boring as pretenders to refinement can be; there was wit and excitement here, a driving force in these middle movements that propelled the music forward. The concluding Allegro vivace was jaunty and lively, bringing this concert to a wholly satisfying conclusion, even though some intonation issues in the violin parts kept the whole from being transcendent.