Musicians from Marlboro are known for their artistic geniality among much else, and their offerings at the Gardner Museum yesterday seemed both chosen and played for those strengths. Scarcely a dark cloud passed in the course of the afternoon, nor was there any discord in compositions or execution.
Max Reger doesn’t scare us at all, though his output, especially for organ, can be academic. The chamber works show charm, especially the wind serenade and the A minor string trio. In this concert the orchestral movement Lyrishe Andante, played as string quintet (with contrabass), was in the same appealing, harmonically rich vein.
A very espressivo Dmitri Murrath opened with some of the most honeyed viola playing we have ever heard, not sounding like the most private member of a quartet. Second violinist Davis McCarroll got the tune next and returned a most personal account. Then violinist Julianne Lee took it up, with sweetness in the upper registers that summed up the lovely sentiments. It all was unabashedly juicy, especially the portamento-esque cello of Judith Serkin. Also noteworthy was the contrabass of Tony Flynn, whose bottom-up leadership served to give more pleasant resonances to Calderwood Hall than we are used to experiencing. If the notion weren’t ridiculous, it would be advisable for future string quartets to double down on the cello parts in that room.
Had Stephen Foster lived another 25 years and turned to chamber music, he might have morphed “Home Sweet Home” into something like one of Dvořák’s Cypresses. The Marlboro musicians sold us seven of these songs without words (at least in the string quartet versions) with an almost assertive poignancy. Except for the cellist’s pizzes, it was almost continuous surging legato. The tones recalled the composer’s later Bagatelles for string trio and harmonium. Sunniness prevailed in these songs, with love but no loss, and there was plenty of ardor, especially from Julianne Lee, but the most emphatic lyrical outpouring of the entire afternoon must have come from the entire ensemble in the last song, “You Ask Why I Sing,” and they answered: because we have such soulful gifts.
Schubert’s beloved F Major Octet fills a joyful hour-plus with more outpourings of lyricism and scarcely a tempest. The instrumentation is the same as the Beethoven Septet with added violin (which we were very glad for, because of McCarroll’s eloquence). Schubert’s ability to write at once inevitably and individually for the eight instruments is probably equaled only by Mozart in his Grand Partita. In this performance there was Marlboro’s trademark nuance on steroids, but these players also revel in one another; they listen to enjoy but also to blend, and individual lines always draw a narrative image.
The famous Marlboro mentoring really works. The youngsters had the noble qualities of their elders, and there was no difference between the contingents in either artistry or eloquence. For example, the Adagio received shapely longing from young Tibi Cziger’s clarinet, while his duet with McCarroll took us to a deeper innigkeit. The Allegro vivace had wonderful swing with no rushing; it sang with savor. It’s so characteristic of Schubert to give warm, open smiles after profound sighs, and there were countless moments of such. For their parts, French hornist Wei-Ping Chou played with security and a most nice inflection, and Natalya Rose Vrbsky drew similarly arched lines from the bassoon.
Overall I would posit this performance as a reference, so be sure to look for the playback on the Gardner site.