in: Reviews

February 24, 2015

Mozart by Any Other Name


One of Boston’s venerable ensembles, the Boston Chamber Music Society, gave an entrancing concert of mostly Mozart in Cambridge. From an experienced and accomplished BCMS in its 32nd season, you can expect polish and commitment. Sunday’s five string players did not disappoint.

The mix of works by Mozart, as well as musical collisions and collaborations between that composer and others, namely Alfred Schnittke and two of the Bachs (J.S. and W.F) was also complemented by a varied ensemble—duo, trio, and quintet. Though the Fitzgerald Theater at Rindge and Latin School was not acoustically ideal, the ensemble balance and individual timbres were clear throughout.

Violinist, Harumi Rhodes, and violist, Dimitri Murrath opened with Mozart’s cheerful and heartfelt Duo for Violin and Viola in G major, K. 423. Reduced to those pared-down textures and high ranges, Mozart’s music, which is transparent in any instrumentation, becomes almost light-headed. But also, the purity of the singing lines are all the more striking.

Rhodes favored a full-throated vibrato that lent the slow movement a particularly plaintive quality. Dimitri Murrath projected an exceptionally sweet tone. As a duo, they were tight and phrased with sensitive, expressive gestures in both melodic and accompanying figures.

Next we heard two Preludes and Fugues for Violin, Viola, and Cello, K. 404a which Mozart wrote for fugues by J.S. Bach (No. 1 in D minor) and W.F. Bach (No. 6 in F minor). Yura Lee was the violinist in these works; she was strong with a focused sound and vibrato. All three players were very sensitive to line and balance. (Lee was joined by violist and artistic director Marcus Thompson and cellist Michael Reynolds.) Interestingly, though Mozart was in the midst of absorbing the intricate counterpoint of the High Baroque style, his own voice is unmistakably there, as if he can’t help but put his own unique sense of lyricism and harmony into this music.

Alfred Schnittke (Yngvild Sørbye photo)

Alfred Schnittke (Yngvild Sørbye photo)

Another departure from standard Mozart came in Schnittke’s surreal deconstruction and reconstruction of Mozart’s music, titled MozArt for Two Violins. Specifically, the work developed out of a fragment from the earlier composer’s incomplete Pantomime Music (K. 416d), written in 1783 for a carnival, but with a number of other Mozart quotations thrown in for good measure. Mozart’s music, which is already built on surprising contrasts, reaches a level of absurdity, as extreme dissonances, string de-tunings, and other extended techniques weave their way through his glowing melodies and harmonies.

With these two perspectives on Mozart established—the inspiration he took from past composers and the brilliant legacy that he left for the future—we finally arrived at one of his most ambitious works, one that looked in both directions, the String Quintet in D Major, K. 593.

Violist (and artistic director) Marcus Thompson joined the others to complete the ensemble. Together they captured the emotional contrasts, rhythmic imagination, and incredible, lyrical lines of one of Mozart’s last and greatest works. Lee, in particular, brought out the contrast between delicacy, yearning, and ecstatic excitement.

Here we have Mozart’s incorporation of his predecessors’ contrapuntal techniques, not only in strict canonic passages, but in the beautifully independent nature of all of the voices throughout the piece. Even background lines possess an intense vitality and interest, while maintaining a delicate balance within the whole. And while perhaps barely hinting at the extremes of Schnittke’s stylistic juxtapositions, his harmonies anticipate Schubert’s emotional wanderings. A radiant beauty pervades the work and like Mozart’s other masterpieces, each emotion—sadness, excitement, humor, anger—is suffused with the glowing beauty of pure consciousness.

The musicians of the Boston Chamber Music Society played with a sound that reflected the Romantic tradition, while possessing a quality of lightness and a general sensitivity to style that allowed the music to speak with grace and power.

For its high level of performance and thoughtful programming, the Boston Chamber Music Society stands out as a “classic” chamber music ensemble in the 20th-century tradition. It is interesting to hear the wide range of approaches to Classical era performance today, from the striking clarity and vibrancy of period ensembles (for a local example, attend a Handel and Haydn Society concert) to the heftier, emotive outpourings of the great orchestras and chamber groups of the mid-20th century.

Indeed, on any day of the year, if you find yourself in the mood to hear live chamber music in or around Boston, you can be fairly certain that there will be something for you. Among the more established ensembles, college music festivals, and house concerts (such as those organized by Groupmuse), there’s more than a full dance card.

Three events remain in the Boston Chamber Music Society’s season.

Nick Dinnerstein is a freelance cellist in the Boston area, playing classical repertoire on either modern or baroque cello, as well as recording and performing with local singer-songwriters. He studied with George Neikrug and now teaches privately.

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