Continuing its 30-year tradition at the head of New England Conservatory’s concert calendar, last night’s First Monday concert presented an eclectic mix of chamber works spanning six centuries. In three succinct but masterfully crafted works, the virtuosi of First Monday brought the audience less on a directed musical journey, than offering it sequential homages to utterly unrelated composers, musical periods, and artistic inspirations.
The concert began in a realm about as old as any concert art music could, with madrigals by Josquin des Préz (c. 1450-1521). A quartet comprising Jacquelyn Stucker (Soprano), Ian Howell (Countertenor), Charles Blandy (Tenor), and Michael Meraw (Baritone) performed four madgridals in various styles and on various topics, from a lovelorn lament (Mille regretz) to a praise-song to Christ (Tu solus qui facis mirabilia). The genius of des Préz is that these worlds, from a stomping war tune (Scaramella) to an onomatopoeic scherzo (El grillo) often intersect and intermingle in surprising ways. The song to Jesus, while retaining a certain mystical reverence, borrowed heavily from the style of the popular love songs of the day; the incessant chattering of the cricket in the final madrigal, while comical, takes on new meaning when one learns the work was a political commentary on a similarly long-winded bishop of des Préz’ time.
The quartet shaped the works beautifully; from the first and by far longest work to the tiny coda-like cricket song at the end. The bombastic counterpoint in Scaramella came forth sharply, and the thorny harmonic tension in Mille regretz retains its evocative spell and gut wrenching power today.
Closing the first half of the concert was Debussy’s inimitable Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, performed by flutist Paula Robison, harpist Jessica Zhou, and violist Dimitri Murrath. Robison, long a fixture on the international music scene as well as more locally here in Boston and New York, was in top form, as was BSO principal harpist Jessica Zhou. Primrose Competition winner and recent Avery Fisher Career Grantee Dimitri Murrath likewise shone in the devilish viola part, and the ensemble performed with a unity of sound and purpose some groups only attain after decades of performing together.
Debussy himself commented that he did not recognize the Debussy who wrote this work, composed late in his life as part of an unfinished project to write a series of sonatas for disparate instruments. While its atmosphere is often eerily disjunct, there is an underlying modal logic that unifies the disparate elements. It is at once rhapsodic and organic, evolving through a series of vignettes which are nonetheless coherently codified. Robison and Murrath excelled at the instrumental trade offs on which this style relies, and had such colorific and dynamic control of her instrument as to make it an orchestra unto itself.
On the second half, First Monday artistic director Laurence Lesser joined legendary pianist Russell Sherman and multi-instrumental virtuoso Yura Lee in Shostakovich’s Trio for Piano and Strings No. 2 in E minor, op. 67. Written in 1944, during the tumult of World War II and dedicated to his close friend Sollertinsky, the trio is a tortured and carefully crafted work of deep personal and emotional meaning.
Beginning with an otherworldly soliloquy for the cello presented in all-harmonics, the violin and piano soon enter in distant and cold counterpoint—it is perhaps the detachment one must find when attempting to understand the incomprehensible. The movement continues, inheriting a strange non-style; not quite a dance nor a sonata, with moments somewhat fugal and somewhat episodic. Duly disoriented, the ear is then thrown into a scherzo dance both frenzied and strangely exuberant; here little of the nervous energy which permeates Shostakovich’s allegros is perceptible, but that may be because it is deeply hidden. The desperate, hollow slow movement, opening with a ground bass chord progression in the piano, is truly from the depths of inner and outer being. The final movement is a sarcastic slow dance, employing the Jewish theme which the composer later used in his String Quartet No. 8. It has been conjectured that this movement, in its eerie moments of musical desperation and absurdity, was meant to signify Jewish prisoners being marched off to their executions. At the end the piano passacaglia returns, and then a sequence of harmonics reminiscent of the trio’s opening, all leading unexpectedly to perhaps the most unsettling and grotesque major triad in music history, played nearly inaudibly.