Debussy said of music that “Beauty must be felt, it must bring us immediate pleasure. Think of Leonardo, think of Mozart. There you have great artists!” This stricture was amply validated on Sunday at Calderwood Hall, when players from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center gave us singularly beautiful works by Mozart, Debussy and Fauré.
Mozart wrote the String Duo for Violin and Viola No. 1 in G Major (1783) to help his friend Michael Haydn complete a commission for the Archbishop Colloredo, keeping his authorship hidden since he and Colloredo hated each other. It is a charming work in three movements that meets the challenge of creating a substantive sound through a number of compositional methods, including double-stopping and note density. Chad Hoopes on violin and Matthew Lipman on viola chose to emphasize Mozart’s lovely clear lines by playing with delicate attentiveness. They convincingly presented two voices, two subjectivities interacting in a myriad of secret ways. They told a story. The first movement Allegro was given the feeling of a courtship, the two voices sometimes entangled, sometimes clearly isolated. The Adagio was played as a love duet, an aria in the violin with reassurances in response from viola. The lively Rondo: Allegro concluded the narrative by evoking the bonding of playful reproach and amorous teasing, the two instruments reasserting their individuality without wanting to give up the pleasure of being joined. In short, Hoopes and Lipman succeeded in giving this short piece some of the vast human depth of a Mozart opera.
Debussy’s sonata for cello and piano was written late in life, in 1915. It is a daring work, one of the great masterpieces for cello, packing far more into its brief 11 minutes’ length than one would have thought possible and making use of a wide range of cello techniques (including spiccato, left-hand pizzicato, flautando, false harmonics) providing rich and varied timbre and color to the writing. But it also looks back to Couperin and Rameau. Too often, this piece is given an exaggeratedly modernist reading, with an Expressionist feel. What was especially pleasing about this performance is that Colin Carr (cello) and Michael Brown (piano) honored Debussy’s fascination with Commedia del Arte, Couperin and Watteau.
Most striking in their interpretation was the way that the piano adopted the position of becoming the attentive listener, liberating the abundantly emotional cello to take the lead. Carr in turn brought the maturity needed to be instinctive and intuitive, releasing pent-up emotion from deep inside the viscera of his cello. Carr’s playing was remarkable in alternating between beautiful sounds and strange, unfamiliar ones, suggesting that deeply buried aspects of the psyche were being uncovered and expressed. In the second-movement Serenade, prompted by the piano’s questions, the cello admitted its propensity for illusionism, for masks and lanterns. The mood was both melancholic and shimmering, evoking disguises through which we communicate the irresistible appeal of irreality. The piano then helped the cello elide effortlessly into the Finale, releasing its sense of adventure, its capacity to meet the unexpected, adventurous, rollicking and flowing.
After hearing the players pair-wise in the first half, we heard the four together in Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor (1885-6). Brown beautifully rendered the turbulent rush in the piano that opens the Quartet, flowing into the strings. With Lipman’s shadow-casting viola, Carr’s brooding cello and Hoopes’s agitated violin, the four performers brought out the Symbolist core of Fauré’s sensitivity. For example, as tension built in the first movement, the cello suddenly emerged as the voice of ancient forests, the voice of memory, grounding, sacred groves, taming and appeasing the violin and viola into a more serene and poised state. As well, a mysterious effect was produced by the contrast between Brown’s lyrical piano and the more autumnal strings, as though chronological layers had been created. In the Allegro molto, obstacles, canyons, craggy terrain of heroic landscapes were evoked as symbols of the trials that the soul craves and through which it discovers its strength and thrives. In the meditative Adagio non troppo there was a feeling of transfigured night, but insight sufficed as resolution, symbolized by a serene Clair de Lune. In the Allegro molto, the performers subtly avoided characterizing this movement as a valse triste or a dance macabre, but instead seemed to credit Fauré with giving us a new symbol, a dance des masques, a cluster of synergistic forces that escape our control, sweep us up into their influence and culminate in a charivari manic surprise.