November’s First Monday concert at the New England Conservatory saw a large audience lining up half an hour ahead of time to grab the best seats. This edition’s formula combined a lot of musicians with different backgrounds in a program that felt arbitrary. One could expect, and got, high-quality playing, but interpretations and repertoire did not rise to inspirational. The main draw, Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 47 partnered a major work for less popular ensemble (Nielsen’s Wind Quintet) and an obscurity with a big name attached: the Quartet for Flute, Guitar, Viola and Cello in G, D. 96, ostensibly by Franz Schubert.
Apparently a product of the composer’s 17th year and of his friendship with Wenzel Thomas Matiegka, most of it isn’t strictly Schubert, being an arrangement of a Notturno in G major for Flute, Viola and Guitar by Mateigka, an accomplished guitarist; according to Laurence Lesser’s stage comments, Schubert was too, though that fact that is apparently in dispute among classical guitarists if the internet is any judge. Schubert added a cello part (perhaps for his father, a rather weak player) as well as a modest. According to Lesser, the abrupt ending of the final movement was due to a difficult cello variation that Schubert’s father could not play, so the son abandoned the work. The work is slight and departed the memory quickly. The execution was notably graceful, and there was a palpable sense of camaraderie among the players that radiated charm above and beyond what was present in the music (Cynthia Meyers, flute; Jérôme Mouffe, guitar; Marcus Thompson, viola; and Mickey Katz, cello).
The Nielsen is a mature, three-movement work that was written in 1921 specifically for the members Copenhagen Wind Quintet, whose personalities were as much an inspiration for the work as was their musicianship. It consists of a sonata-form first movement, a menuet and trio, and set of 11 strongly contrasting variations. Among the finest works in the problematic wind quintet repertoire, it received a highly refined interpretation by five members of the Boston Symphony: Meyers, flute; John Ferillio, oboe; Michael Wayne, clarinet; Richard Ranti, bassoon; and Jason Snider, French horn. It sounded lush and so tonally attractive as to feel over-prepared. Nielsen’s rough edges were impeccably polished away. The Menuetto’s recurring melody had grace and nobility, but was so effortless that its underlying rustic humor was hidden. The reading was beyond reproach, though: balances between the very different instruments were perfect, and while I may have wished for edgier timbres, the blending of sound was never less than expert.
A pairing of two young NEC students joined an experienced NEC faculty duo for the Schumann. Paul Katz (cello) and Marcus Thompson (viola) supplied the experience. Tchaikovsky Silver Medalist pianist George Li is in the dual degree program at NEC and Harvard; violinist Alexi Kenney is an Artist Diploma candidate at NEC. Both young players have achieved success on the competition circuit; they also appeared much earlier in their musical life on NPR’s From the Top. This combination of forces produced a a battle of personalities. Li has a distinctive, powerful and assertive tone, and he was fairly carried away with it at the start. Assisted by some muscular playing by Katz, they dominated the first movement, often swamping the higher strings. The Scherzo saw Kenney reassert some control, and Thompson produced a quite beautiful solo in the Andante. By the Finale, the balance of power had been more evenly negotiated, but the feeling was of an unstable victory; this performance was clearly a work in progress, the roughest performance of the evening, and also the most interesting: it hinted at surprise and future potential, of something beyond grace and workmanship, something neither benign nor soothing.