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BCMS Effuses: Lyrical, Noir, and Rhapsodic


John Harbison (Jonathan Sachs photo)
John Harbison (Jonathan Sachs photo)

In a sweeping and satisfying Sunday evening at Sanders Theater, the Boston Chamber Music Society concluded its season with works of Mozart, Harbison and Schumann. Guest violinist Jesse Mills joined artist-members Marcus Thompson, viola; Raman Ramakrishnan, cello; and Reiko Aizawa, piano.

Some have doubted the story that Mozart was commissioned in 1785 by the publisher Hoffmeister to write three quartets for piano, violin, viola and cello, but was released from the contract due to poor sales. Yet it is true that having invented the form, Mozart only composed two piano quartets—and what a very high level of artistry and skill these demand. BCMS brought a distinctive emotional depth to the Piano Quartet in G Minor, K. 478, especially in the rondo finale, which felt simultaneously light-hearted and tragic. They played the opening allegro with élan, lyricism, longing and a sense of vastness. Mozart’s innovative contrast between the assertive tutti, suggesting fate, and the tender, delicate piano in response set in motion a dialog that persisted throughout. Aizawa’s sensitive and nuanced touch brought moments of tender beauty that evoked all that is fleeting, ephemeral, wind-blown. The second theme, with its slightly anthem-like character arrived in a wistful, almost whimsical tone, later returning with wonderment in the face of the unknown. The second movement andante, a large two-part song form, highlighted especially beautiful sound in Thompson’s viola, like traces of memory left in it by the piano. The elegiac, almost hymnal violin of Mills cello of Ramakrishnan marked again a tender but almost inexhaustible regret at the fragility of life. In a subtle move, BCMS gave the ending of the andante the feeling of a false cadence, heightening our attention and invoking a need for resolution through the coming finale. In the rondo finale, Aizawa’s piano seemed to bring about an infinitely precious here and now, pleading for more time against a cruelly indifferent Fate. Though the strings came knocking inexorably at the Fate’s door, they gradually converted to empathy for the human condition, as though the universe itself regretted that human life must be cut short.

Similar themes of inhuman fate and human fragility stood at the heart of John Harbison’s stark but elegant String Trio. Commissioned in 2013 for the Camerata Pacifica, it represents Harbison’s titanic grappling with Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563 (not unlike Picasso’s grappling with Velasquez in his later years). This performance of the Harbison Trio constituted the Boston premiere. Like the Mozart, the Harbison’s is in six movements, each closely paralleling its analog, though in distorted and often menacing noir elegance that gives it a unique voice, distinct not only from Mozart’s Divertimento but also from Schoenberg’s expressionistic string trio. Harbison’s masterful work makes a lasting contribution to the string trio repertoire. Mills, Thompson and Ramakrishnan played with a focused intensity, giving the work a seamless coherence. The piece began with a dream-like mood in which imagination flowed into the sound space, invisibly but palpably invading multiple registers. A fight or flight impulse stirred in the viola, countered by ambiguous voices of reason in cello and violin. The second movement, adagio appassionato disclosed a threatening angst about some unknown menace lurking in impenetrable shadows. Sharp contrasts forced us to advance cautiously, alone and in darkness, while a mysterious high register lament in the violin suggested yearning for an impossible transcendence. In the first intermezzo, a highly distorted version of Mozart’s minuet, the uncanny (what Freud called the Unheimlich) reigned, with clues and signs appearing and vanishing fitfully before their meaning could be deciphered. The molto moderato fourth movement variations evoked the puzzlement of a strange choreography in which we feature as unwilling extras. We know that a murder will happen, but around which corner? At what hour? To know when, how, why, would be a relief. The movement ended with a marvelously unbearable anguish. Modern heroism, Harbison suggests, consists in our living with an unscheduled and unschedulable fatality.

With the second intermezzo the uncanny returned, sphinxlike: will it speak? But if it does it will speak in riddles, in mathematical symbols, unsolvable, toying with us.  With the monumental finale, we returned to the initial dream state of the beginning movement, suggesting a deceptive stability, an acquired capacity to live with denial, to live with the incomprehensible, lulled into a kind of complacency. Then the crime happened, with echoes of Sacre du Printemps, a savage “knife to the ribs” as Harbison puts it. Faced with self-annihilation, imagination turned it into victimhood—a sacrifice decided in some higher realm, inescapable and necessary. The beauty of Harbison’s piece comes in its skillful exploitation of the stark minimalist character of the string trio format with its absence of sonic hiding places to produce a stylishly noir but philosophically profound statement.

With its exuberant first movement, Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47 brought us back to the unwelcome finitude of our human condition with a more rhapsodic romantic idiom offering relief through emotional outpouring. The first movement swelled with aching beauty from the start.  Aizawa’s subtle piano interwoven with the beautiful tone of the strings like fitful episodes of moonlight cast Clara Wieck as a magic source of poetry—Schumann’s muse. The players’ exquisite balance brought out a hidden heroism in the manly strings, suggesting that artistic inspiration is a hero’s response to the seductive power of the sublime. The strings brought out the same heroic subtext in their very remarkable reading of the second movement scherzo. Rather than giving us mere nervous energy, they conveyed an adventurous drive toward the unknown, exciting, dangerous, irreversible, brave. The two trios, in contrast, conveyed a mysterious pensiveness, looking back nostalgically to the illusion of Eden: a world of order and peace, a garden of motionless splendor and fountains. The core of the quartet, the lushly romantic third movement, began with a beautiful cello solo, soon taken up by the violin in a sweeping duet. Joined by the viola and a liquid and rhapsodic piano, it meditated on the magic, hypnotic Eden that is Love, ending with a subtle three-note hint of the coming finale. The exuberant last movement took up the three-note motif that ended the third movement and wove the many themes and subthemes of the previous movements into a satisfying, dense, heavily contrapuntal conclusion, in which the BCMS players emphasized the exciting return fughetto so as to juxtapose and combine the antithetical experiences of endurance and climax, of the rhapsodic ephemeral and the perennial sublime.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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