in: Reviews

May 18, 2015

Blowing It Up and Going for Broke


There cannot be many chamber concerts quite like the one served up Sunday night at Sanders by Boston Chamber Music Society artist members violinist Harumi Rhodes, violist Marcus Thompson, along with guests: violinist Jennifer Frautschi, cellist Astrid Schween, and pianist Andrew Armstrong. Buckle up, they suggest. Let those other guys have their ultra-precision and etched delicacy; we shall rock.

The concert comprised Schubert’s Quartettsatz (abandoned-quartet first movement, 1820, the composer 23); Shostakovich’s last work, the Viola Sonata (1975, a few weeks before his death, at 68); and Brahms’s massive Piano Quintet Opus 34 (1862-’64, the composer around 30).

Brian Newbould altogether covers the Schubert’s nine-plus minutes: “the first work in which he reached full maturity as an instrumental composer in any medium … intense, eventful and compact, … agitated [then] consolatory … a compact, circular unity … exalted … uniquely colorful … perfectly formed. What gives this music its impact is not just the force of craftsmanship and mature judgment but the sheer quality of the material and the passion that impels it.” The usual old-school approach is loving, a work for violin with rich and complex accompaniment (Amadeus Quartet here). The opposite was the case at Sanders: everyone played out bigtime. Frautschi’s long leading lines could have sung and led more piercingly, and ensemble was a bit raucous, but eventually it cohered to become an edgy, democratic reading of beauty. A nervy way to start.

Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata, elegiac and austere as a palate-clearer, presents over a half-hour of mostly dolor. He knew the quoted Moonlight sonata’s first movement to be funereal. As with so much of the composer’s chamber music, this sonata can seem unrelievedly uncolored, but the meandering misery can really grip if you let it. I love it, though have heard it with less slack. Walking plucks announce the mood at the start; typical tuning intervals anticipate not a future so much as more of the present; scurries and stabs at humor get strewn about the middle. The long last movement Adagio is a great moment, Thompson’s slightly shy tone notwithstanding, as over the pages the gray moroseness of grave illness became majestic.

Then came the feast. Everyone was a critic with Brahms, who cast this massive symphonic thing first as a string quintet, then a piano duo, and finally the gusting work we have today. Not every reading is like this one, though, with measure after measure of detonations. Loose, untidy ensemble, sure, but no one cared. Having watched too much NBA playoff action recently, I could only marvel at how BCMS always pushed the ball, jacked up threes, lobbed alley-oops.

Astrid Schween (file photo)

Astrid Schween (file photo)

Not so easy to charge upcourt energetically with something as hefty, and potentially lumbering and sighing, as this one. From the opening sighs and quiet sobs to the exploding anguish right afterward, it was everywhere intensely stimulating. For more than 40 minutes. In the monster piano part, Andrew Armstrong outdid himself, each movement more powerful and heedless than the last. Rhodes led this time, her phrasing segmented and pointed; Schween, member of the Boston Trio and newly named cellist for the Juilliard String Quartet, kept everyone largely anchored with glowing tone and rhythm. The band knew it was rocking along the edge of the ledge; after the Scherzo ends so strangely, off-cadence, they all did a big exhale and long pause, in order to inhale for the last lap. Like highest-quality professional sightreading. After the quintet hurtled to the end, smiles, laughs, fistbumps and shoulder pats abounded. For everyone, it seemed, the emotions on Sunday evening were yanked around just wonderfully.

BCMS is a somewhat unconventional outfit in other ways. Heavily New York-infused, quartet-avoiding, blending shifting regulars with imaginative guests, it has recently experienced some heated departures of veterans. On the evidence of this concert, it trucks on without decline. Perhaps ‘plunges’ is better. Gaudeamus igitur.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.


  1. Yes, indeed, it was quite a concert. I only wish to emphasize the reviewer’s indication that the Shostakovich ended well if at a dark place. However the soloists attained it, by the end the audience was thoroughly in the mood……….

    Comment by Jerry — May 18, 2015 at 6:13 pm

  2. From first row mezzanine, we heard a viola tone as rich as one could wish. And nowhere did the group lack precision. This was a grand sendoff to summer.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 19, 2015 at 8:59 am

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