It doesn’t get more establishment, or more dependable, than the venerable Boston Chamber Music Society at Sanders Theater. Three artist members and one guest provided a polished professionalism that can’t as consistently be expected from other cadres. Sunday afternoon’s blessedly un-themed program brought a good example of this reliability from the hands of violinist Harumi Rhodes, violist Dimitri Murrath, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan in Schubert’s String Trio in B-flat Major D.581. Have a listen to a celebrity recording (Kagan-Bashmet-Gutman) for interpretative excellence but iffy tuning [here]. The BCMS threesome got gold stars in both of those categories.
Although one can argue that Schubert’s other string trio in B-flat Major, D.471, from a year earlier, contains more freshness and life in its single complete movement, D.581 is a full four-movement work of 20 minutes. The Allegro at once revealed the integrated, voluptuous and forward style that BCMS favors. We got big-bones, agreed-upon dynamic swings, organlike chords even in the big space, and perfect support for Rhodes’s delectably embroidered filigree. If the three did not linger in the Andante as long as others have, they nevertheless took us on a fine stroll. Murrath made much of his tunes, and only Ramakrishnan sounded a bit sleepy, though in fairness, his tone did seem to be blocked by his large metal stand. The Menuetto added to a simple wind-up toy some niceties of warmth. Livelier expression arrived in the Rondo-Allegro as Schubert and his interpreters anticipated springtime.
Much has been written in these pages about BCMS in general and its two-year-old Commissioning Club in particular [see interview here]. Good journalistic practice though prompts the reminder that BCMS is doing something very important in allocating $10,000 per year to bring new works in fine performances to large audiences. One can join the Association for as little as $300 per year. After debuting George Tsontakis’s Portraits by El Greco (Book I): Quintet for Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello in 2014 and Pierre Jalbert’s Street Antiphons for Clarinet, Violin, Cello and Piano in 2015, the society premiered Harold Meltzer’s Piano Quartet in this outing.
Meltzer apparently considered no programmatic references when he undertook the commission, but the death of composer Steven Stucky halfway through the writing proved “devastating.” Rather than respond with something “dirgelike,” the composer said he tried to evoke one of Stucky’s Dream Waltzes from the ’80s. “A virtual music box” in his words alluding to a middle-period Beethoven waltz then materialized in the score.
The composer showed great consideration in offering a verbal roadmap to his single movement. Any time listeners recognize recurring features in a new work they feel the slightest bit smarter, and Meltzer helped improve our minds by describing his A [aba] [aba] A plan.
The opening pizzicato fairy music (did Meltzer know a Mendelssohn scherzo was to follow?) permuted à la Reich before a jazzy aria appeared from the very engaged soulman Murrath. More tremulating with mosquito buzz ensued before the jazziness returned … and so on. None of the materials seemed to last more than a minute, though as far as this 68-year-old memory could detect, all came back according to Meltzer’s structure. And what to make of that figure in the meter of “I like to be in America”? Guest pianist Max Levinson, who can be counted on to learn a new work—sometimes on short notice—displayed his signature alert style. He was particularly effective in the sans espressivo music box section. Rotating like the shards of color in a kaleidoscope, Meltzer’s fragments seem to have cohered as a genial new member of the BCMS Commissions Club.
Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C Minor wanted nothing in the chops department—from Rhodes especially. Bold she was, and emphatic, proudly extoling the composer’s longings while drawing us in with compelling tone. She offered something extra in a performance that otherwise lacked some of the Mendelssohn family’s old-money refinement. Ramakrishnan looked expressive and sounded sweet, but never invited involvement from my section of the mezzanine. Levinson’s playing baffled. At times he charged and pounced with the appropriate passion, and he could also muster fine quiet playing, but delicacies of expression, not to mention relaxed pleasure, eluded him. His statement of the great Lutheran hymn did not mark him as a committed votary. The fairy scherzo scampered by as quickly as I have ever heard it—and I have heard it many times—but gossamer went missing in action. More Puck’s crew than Titania’s provided this reading.
Masterfully built, if perhaps in the recent Brutalist style, the ashlar Finale elicited another of BCMC’s deserved ovations.