Under the direction of NEC’s past president Laurence Lesser, First Monday’s 30th season of free concerts by the conservatory’s worthies continued in with a somewhat non-traditional program of two rarely heard works by Beethoven and Elgar, along with Bach’s Wedding Cantata.
Beethoven’s String Quintet in C Major, Op. 29, The Storm, was written during a transitional period. The early years of the 19th century saw Beethoven’s music develop from obviously masterful but often lighthearted works, owing much to his tutelage under Haydn and his admiration of Mozart, to more-dramatic and heroic works, filled with sharp contrasts and bold experiments in form and orchestration. The influence of his elders is clear, particularly Mozart’s own string quintets, but the voice that is to become Beethovenian in his middle period is already distinct. Strangely dark textures infiltrate an otherwise happy Allegro Moderato, and the Adagio remains bittersweet throughout. The phenomenal acoustics of Jordan Hall allowed one to hear each of the five distinct voices in the ensemble, as they played with great nuance, freely undulating rhythms, mutating textures, varying musical characters on a dime.
The quintet, comprising violinists Soovin Kim and Kristopher Tong, violists Melissa Reardon and Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Raffael Popper-Keizer, played with deep sensitivity, wit, and aggressive strength. The third movement, a scherzo in quasi-recitativo style, featured a trio aptly played by Melissa Reardon. The Finale also started in that style, reminiscent of the finale of Symphony No. 1 although more energetic. There are elements of Beethoven’s middle period in the piece. And some hallmarks of his later style, including extended forms and multiple codas, are executed somewhat awkwardly, giving the piece the feel of being longwinded. As the opening work, it set a strange precedent for the pieces to come.
Luckily, Bach’s Wedding Cantata (“Weichet nur betrübte Schatten,” S.202) breathed a happy sigh that banished any dust lingering from the Beethoven. The cantata is one of the many pieces heard in the first season of First Monday (1985) to be presented anew in the 30th. Soprano Lisa Saffer sang the solo part, with an ensemble featuring three members of the Borromeo Quartet, NEC’s quartet-in-residence, NEC’s John Gibbons at the harpsichord, and BSO Principal Oboe John Ferrillo. Borromeo lead violinist Nicolas Kitchen joined Popper-Keizer and Borromeo colleagues Tong and Motobuchi, as well as bassist Charles Clements, to round out the ensemble.
Although the voice was sometimes overbalanced, that might have been alleviated if Saffer had stood in front of the ensemble instead of within it; wonderfully intimate musical moments allowed by the setup compensated for the few moments of instrumental covering. Saffer shone in the brilliant passagework, and the solo instrument obbligati were exceptional. Popper-Keizer deftly executed the spritely dance “Phoebus eilt mit schnellen Pferden,” and Ferrillo expertly sang through his multifaceted role, whether rapid counterpoint or emotional ariettas.
An intermission in a three-piece chamber concert must come at an od point, but the Piano Quintet by Elgar earned its place as the sole work on the second half and the concert’s closer. Described by the composer himself as “spooky” music, the Quintet was superbly interpreted by Kim and Alexi Kenney, Kim Kashkashian Peter Stumpf, and pianist Ya-Fei Chuang. It opens with an introduction of sneaking strings against a piano which was at once unified with and somehow above the ensemble. What followed was a kind of danse macabre, which spun out of control before ending with a ghostly close. In the soulful Adagio, Kashkashian spun a nostalgic solo, which was taken by the ensemble and developed, until at the end it returned with a profound sense of homecoming. The third and fourth movements came attacca, and whatever sins the young Beethoven might have committed nearly 90 minutes earlier were forgotten in the rousing finish, when the nearly capacity crowd lavished its praise on the performers who took all of us on a somewhat unexpected, ultimately rewarding journey.