With plenty of oomph, Musicians from Marlboro made their way back to the Sunday Concert Series at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Perhaps with a bit less and with a touch or two of lightness instead, their playing could very well have been tops all the way. Choosing Mozart, his Quintet in E-flat Major, of Fauré, his Piano Quartet in C Minor, and a rare and special entry, Earl Kim’s “Three Poems in French” yielded near-maximum joy along with deep enrichment.
In every one of the three pieces, Musicians from Marlboro left no note unturned. Their attention, better yet, their devotion to each such annotation remained audible the entire afternoon. First off was the K. 614 Quintet, which is described by Mozart authority Eric Blom as “the most superb of all” such genres. Its meaty four movements were taken wholly as serious play by the Marlboro quintet of Danbi Um and Hye-Jin Kim, violins, Rebecca Albers and Shuangshuang Liu, violas, and Peter Stumpf, cello. Voicings, doublings, fugal counterpoints, and other compositional devices Mozart advances were all put on magnificent display in a performance that loomed large with untiring energy.
The players found all kinds of expressive ways to draw their bows in the Allegro di molto; their strings were given over to astute, canny speech. A tightness of ensemble reappeared in Mozart’s ever so ingenious Andante variations. Here, the Musicians posed the theme with loveliness in the simplest near purest states, each variation captured in rapturous detail. Somehow, the Musicians veered from the ensuing Menuetto, offering it with a marked determination that felt real for the preceding movements but not entirely so for this one.
Serious intent continued in the Allegro. Interpretation might be up for grabs because of the complex fugal writing twice heard in this finale. Yet the repeated notes of the opening theme can also suggest a certain jocular mood, which might have been a better route especially in terms of providing relief from an otherwise driven performance. Cellist Stumpf took to his melodic iterations with a good measure of allure and welcome letup.
To know the composer is to know how his music can be so soft-spoken yet strong, so restrained, yet so pleasing. Earl Kim came to Harvard to teach to while I was a graduate student. He was the consummate gentleman. His unassuming title of settings of Verlaine and Baudelaire, “Three Poems in French,” tells even more about this slow moving, even tempered, Debussy-flavored trio of songs. Kim’s music pleases and pleases and just maybe a little too much.
A quartet of Musicians from Marlboro with soprano Hyunah Yu delivered French elegance, haunting emotion tied to deep mysteries. When Yu raised her head high, the most gorgeous of voices rang out. Her compassion for Kim’s Debussy-spun lines touched inner spaces infrequently sought. Kim’s settings of French fostered clarity and this, in combination with Yu’s impeccable diction, made for yet another rarity in the classical realm of vowel focused singing. The string quartet delivered high register tremolos evoking solitude; low pizzicato beats from the cello accompanied the phrase, Nuit qui marche, (“Night walking”). The performance spectacularly silhouetted Kim and the voices—despair, black skies, and nightingales—of the night.
Pianist Kuok-Wai Lao, who joined the Marlboro strings in Piano Quartet N. 2 in C Minor, Op 115 of Gabriel Fauré, brought shades of lightness. His going light on the damper pedal, his array of staccato techniques, and his perfectly conceived diminuendos and crescendos lifted the Fauré into more and more glorious spaces. This, along with the absolutely luxuriant cello of Peter Stumpf and the Musicians from Marlboro, created moments to melt hearts.