By the time Trio Cleonice and Friends’ second season of informal, down-home concerts at Brookline’s United Parish Church closed on Thursday, word seemed to have gotten out big time; it took at least 25 minutes past official concert starting time to shoehorn into the church’s parlor all who showed up.
This series is adapted to having members of the trio (Ari Isaacman-Beck, violin; Gwen Krosnick, cello; and Emely Phelps, piano) perform outside the trio repertoire, but this one appeared to be the first time they didn’t play any actual piano trios, owing to violinist Isaacman-Beck’s absence due to a cycling accident. With guest artists Emily Smith and Zenas Hsu, violins, Gwen’s father Joel Krosnick, cello, and Samuel Rhodes, viola, the latter two of the Juilliard Quartet, they fielded a program of works for violin and piano (Beethoven), two cellos (a partial premiere by Richard Wernick), and string quintet (Schubert).
Smith and Phelps opened with an interesting mixed-affect reading of Beethoven’s Romance No. 2, op. 50 in F Major, which, of course, was originally for violin and orchestra. At least four arrangements for violin and piano are extant, the earliest of which may have been by Beethoven, with others by Charles Dancla, Joseph Joachim and Franz Kneisel, of the BSO and his eponymous Boston quartet. There were no program notes to tell us which version was used. At any rate, Smith was both sturdy and sweetly lush, employing a bracingly narrow vibrato, while Phelps, with minimally-invasive pedaling and some excellent secco phrasing, made a virtue of the undersized Baldwin baby grand by treating it as a fortepiano.
Wernick wrote the first movement of his Sonata for Two (cellos) a few years ago as a birthday gift for Joel Krosnick; the subsequent two were premiered at this concert. The Boston native and long-time University of Pennsylvania teacher who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977 has worked extensively the Cleonice, and he was present to give the history of the piece. Not only did he tell us how relationships between composers and particular performers are, to his mind, the best source of inspiration for writing music, but he also related an anecdote about a medical emergency on route to the premiere.
The first movement, “Loose Canons,” begins as a canon of attacks rather than of moving notes, but thereafter develops into intense, angular lines, though never abandoning the use of different styles of attack as a feature. The writing for the two cellos is also highly differentiated, with Gwen K’s lines more orotund and Joel K’s grittier. Their playing seemed exemplary throughout, though of course only the composer could opine on its accuracy. The predominantly melodic atonality, a Wernick hallmark, harkens back to Wallingford Riegger and even, one might say, Alban Berg, is quite effective. The slow movement, “Orisons” (prayers, possibly a reference to Hamlet?) relaxed even further, granting itself permission occasionally for freestanding consonances. It grows rhapsodically at the end, where it attaches to the last movement, “ ‘Rejouissance’.” The disjointed snippets try to coalesce into longer phrases, seemingly always falling apart when they do. We’re not sure what this fissile movement was rejoicing at, but it seemed the least satisfying of the three.
After intermission, all the musicians save Phelps presented themselves for Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D. 956, completed a scant two months before the composer’s probably unanticipated death. Trio Cleonice really, likes this piece, to judge from Gwen K’s effusive note and the fact that they’ve programmed it on several occasions. Though a mainstay of the chamber repertoire, it is not without its problems. It’s one of those “heavenly length” Schubert works whose harmonic excursions, with Neapolitan-sixth relationships treated here structurally rather than decoratively as for example in the A major piano sonata, required, for Schubert’s day, considerable working out. A random sample of timings for recordings available on iTunes or YouTube range from a whirlwind 46:38 (a “pickup” ensemble of Stern, A. Schneider, Katims, Casals and Tortellier), to a relaxed Melos Quartet with Rostropovich at 57:44, with a notable outlier being the Afiara Quartet with Joel Krosnick coming in at over an hour (1:03:19, to be precise). Joel K’s druthers seemed to inform the Cleonician performance, which we clocked at 58:04.
So what did the audience get for its Sitzfleisch? A mixed bag. In the first movement, great sweetness from the young’uns (Smith, Hsu and Gwen K), rather more gruffness from Rhodes and Joel K, with moments of superb dynamic phrasing and yet no melding of instrumental lines or forward propulsion, and a static melodic sense. In the second movement outer sections, again very lovely shaping of phrases through dynamic variations, but sustained notes were often wan; the central section was full of fire and intensity, and we commend Smith particularly for a splendid fade-out at the end. In the scherzo, whose use of open strings in the cellos makes a grand roar, that uncouth roughness dominated everything else. There was fine Hungarian spice in the finale’s rondo theme, followed by Viennese Schlagsahne in the first episode. This was undoubtedly the best-integrated playing of the four movements, with a fine mercurial feeling to the development and a coda that hurtled with passion to its climactic statement of the minor-second phrase that underlay the whole piece.