Musicians from Marlboro advanced steadily in their Sunday afternoon concert at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from an unbalanced start to an extraordinary finish. Some of the best harp playing I have ever heard came from the fingertips of Sivan Magen whose arms left the instrument as if it were a Theremin. Marlboro’s string quintet delivered a story so real, so natural, so Beethoven.
A trio by the Hungarian composer Andreæ Szervánszky led off. New to Gardner listeners, the late professor at the Budapest Academy of Music composed his Trio for Flute, Violin and Viola in 1951 though you would never have guessed it. Having no traces of Schoenberg or any of the other 20th-century icons, save perhaps a tiny shade here and there of Bartók, little known Szervánszky naturally sprinkled folkish lines from his native homeland. The trio’s four movements took to a rural path of simplicity, the pastoral, the unadventurous, all of which provided escape from so much musical angst we have expected from the composers of the period. Nikki Chooi on violin and Wenting Young on viola departed along this humble and bucolic trail but ran into interference from the far too brilliant flute of Marina Piccinini, whose too frequent earsplitting ways were at times physically painful.
Some imbalance continued in Claude Debussy’s miracle oeuvre, his Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. Again it was a somewhat rigid flute keeping this listener from gaining access to the wind- and wave-like vibrations of the French maître. The real attraction was the dynamic duo of Kim Kashkashian’s viola and Sivan Magen’s harp, where unlimited interaction between the two could be heard as well as seen. That being said of both players, the vibrancy of their individual personalities also shown through and made for a more complex yet longed-for esthetic. Magen created fleshy sound on the strings, a sudden sharp glissando surprised, opening up sunlight, resonant bass notes countered, and a most wondrous sense of warmly earthy and divinely exquisite gorgeousness abounded.
Geörgy Kurtág wrote his Officium breve in memoriam Andreæ Szervánszky some dozen years after the death of his close friend. All short, its 15 movements, take different paths, some following Szervánszky’s music, some Webern’s, some delicate, some frenzied. This music is a moment by moment event where, it might be fair to say, some sounds you liked others you might not have. Be it one or the other, there is no denying that Marlboro’s quartet of strings with violinists, David McCarroll and Chooi, violist Kashkashian, and cellist Karen Ouzounian, were completely synced and centered on the 15 contrasting briefs. They performed Kurtág’s memoriam from full score, which made for an inordinate number of page turns, and could be a little distracting. Yet, astonishing instrumental accomplishment surfaced everywhere in Kurtág’s space where the softest sounds mingled with the loudest, the slowest with the fastest.
A much larger dose of reality sounded all around Calderwood Hall with Beethoven and his arsenal of mood shifts and musical imperatives, all this in String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29. What a story Marlboro’s string musicians told! In their finale for the afternoon, these five came together as one to speak, sing, dance, tease, and even advance a good bit of misdirection as was that master’s penchant. Balance was optimal at every curve in the plot. No cuteness here. This was the real thing, a story much about Beethoven, his temperament, his craft. What more could be said than to say that it seemed as though the master was right there in the room with us, moving us, melting us, turning fury into joy. As the Marlboro musicians worked their way to the end of the Presto movement, the conversation now spreading to every instrument; we, the listeners, all became a real part of that communication. We were never left out.