Long before there was YouTube bringing unlimited musical riches to anyone with access to the net, there were New England Conservatory faculty recitals at Jordan Hall, just as free and available to anyone who could make it to the corner of Gainsborough and Huntington. And those revolving around James Buswell were for a long time the ones to look out for.
Free concerts are an American thing. In Europe they charge for entertainment—whether high or low forms. But here it is free for the asking—though this may have to do with who is asking. Top notch music making on Tuesday night attracted less than half a hall, with the usual bimodal distribution: grey haired folks ‘from the trade’ and the students whom they teach. This vocal majority, as well as quiet minority of regular music lovers, would not be leaving empty handed. All Buswell concerts in my memory did not just deliver noble playing, they also overwhelmed with their generosity.
Last night, for starters, we were treated to a Mozart D-Major String Quintet K.593 played in its reconstructed version. Carpe Diem quartet brought to it the required purity of tone and sensitivity.
In an evening arranged by Buswell, one is not surprised to find him play host in a variety of ways. In the Quintet, he was joining to play the second viola part, the way Mozart allegedly would have on occasion when hosting his guests.
Then it became time for him to step into the limelight with a haunting starting theme of Schubert C Major Fantasie D. 934. At this point he became quite patrician, ethereal rather than emotional. But Schubert takes it from there: by the time we got to variations on “Sei mir gegrüßt,” we are in the hands of a mad scientist who was concocting transformations ranging from the emotionally wrenching to just plain startling. One would not call the pizzicato variation played against the background of rich bloom of the piano textures light hearted —rather it materialized as an unknown variety of ghost that Schubert conjured. The performance was not note perfect; for that you might have to go to YouTube, but for a front row observation point for a recreation of Schubert’s magic, one is still much better off schlepping to Avenue of the Arts. At some point in the final Allegro we lost a few notes because the pianist seemingly struggled with turning pages on the tablet. This didn’t take away from the magic, as far as this listener is concerned anyway, but did make him wonder about an upcoming public performance that will be the first one to be disrupted because of the music stand downloading urgent security updates.
Returning to piano textures, Meng-Chieh Liu is a wonderful Schubertian. His textures were rich without losing transparency. James Buswell started the concert with the announcement of Liu’s appointment to the NEC piano faculty [see interview here]. The prospect of hearing his faculty recitals, maybe with more Schubert on the program, lead to the excitement of the evening. This was a pure surfeit of riches.
More Schubert followed after the intermission. This time Buswell played the solo in Rondo in A Major D. 438, a glorious piece likely written for Ferdinand Schubert as solo violin and one that must be fairly close to what a party hosted by Schubert brothers could have sounded like. Our own host tonight played with beautiful intonation, plus, he all but danced to one of the contagious main themes, as did many of his listeners in their chairs.
The main course arrived in the form of Chausson’s Concerto for violin, piano and string quartet. And if you ever wondered what exactly the programmatic meaning of such a concerto is, a credible answer arrived tonight. It is the host leading the conversation, and his guests are being good sports even as the light hearted evening turns to heavier subjects. Whatever you might hear about Chausson working to shake off Wagnerian influence, the leading theme of the concerto is about as subtle as Wotan’s spear. Listeners of course get a quick reassurance that it is more Cesar Franck guiding the path here, and there is graceful relief in the Sicilienne. Still one left the performance with a sense that Chausson has not resolved his problems but also hoping that the family on stage would be having many more such public discourses.