in: Reviews

March 10, 2014

Concord’s Welcome Thaw

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Sunday afternoon’s Concord Chamber Music Society concert at Concord Academy radiated joy throughout, at a time when all of us, so weary of winter, were welcoming thaw and sunlight. The Performing Arts Center is medium-sized fan-shaped theater built for plays but with fine projection of music, containing a capacity audience of about 300, with a median age of 50 at the youngest. There were a handful of pre-teens present; I couldn’t see a single person that looked like a college student, and the regulars of Concord Academy had just bolted for vacation.

Pianist Jonathan Biss opened with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 27 in E Minor, Op. 90, from 1814. This isn’t the first of Beethoven’s sonatas to be complete in two movements, but it is the first to have German rather than Italian tempo markings. The first movement, Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck, says it all — lively and with feeling and expression throughout—but there are so many instances of rapid passage work in sixteenth-notes that the Empfindung and Ausdruck can easily get lost if there is too much Lebhaftigkeit. The tempo of the second movement, which begins Nicht zu geschwind, not too fast, is also retrospectively cautionary for the first movement. Biss got all of the tempi, and the cantabile too, absolutely right. But this is exactly what one would expect from a pianist who has repeatedly exhibited a fine and thorough technique but also outstanding musical intelligence and comprehension of Beethoven in the largest sense, unlike so many of the fashionable pianists on the circuit today — you can name them as well as I can — who are concerned only to get out the notes in the most flamboyant and glitzy manner. Jonathan Biss is in the process of recording all of Beethoven’s sonatas, but he also demonstrates his Beethovenian understanding in a self-designed online course, “Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas,” jointly sponsored by the Curtis Institute and Coursera: which is available free here.

Wendy Putnam, founder and director of the CCMS, played second violin in the rest of the program. She was joined by Peter Zazofsky, first violin; Steven Ansell, viola; and Michael Reynolds, cello—collectively three-quarters of the Muir String Quartet. It was a delight to watch as well as hear these well-known professionals as they so happily lit into Mendelssohn’s E minor Quartet, op. 44, no. 2. I hadn’t realized how close this masterful work was to the more familiar Violin Concerto in melodic substance and shape as well as in key; even the slow movement, in G major, seems to foreshadow the G major sections of the concerto. The second movement is called Menuetto” but it is a genuinely Mendelssohnian scherzo, un poco Allegretto, but of gossamer lightness that is almost a Presto.

Schumann’s great Piano Quintet, op. 44, was the biggest work on the program. It’s obvious that connubial bliss was what Schumann needed: during the first year of his marriage, in 1840, he wrote more than 100 of the best songs of all time, and the next year, turning to chamber music, he hit another jackpot with the Quintet. No work of his is more continuously vigorous and brimming with such lovable ideas. (One can argue that even this work wasn’t big enough; a month after finishing it, he began working on his Piano Quartet in the same key, with much of the same spirit and overflowing melodic abundance.) In this performance, strings and piano were perfectly matched, perfectly balanced, and perfectly expressive. I heard things in this relatively small hall that I’d never heard so clearly before — even the funeral-march theme in the second movement when the viola has it, with the open C-string glowing with sound. The momentum was fully sustained in the finale, especially at the end, where there is a double fugato, the main finale theme combining cyclically with the main melody of the first movement. The audience obviously found the energy agreeable; they applauded at the end of the scherzo, and leaped to their feet after the finale.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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