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BAE Introduces Important New Weir Work


Jonathan MIller and Judith Weir (Diane Fassino photo)
Jonathan MIller and Judith Weir (Diane Fassino photo)

Boston Artists Ensemble’s stunningly opened its five-concert series, held on Friday in Salem at Hamilton Hall, and on Sunday at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline, with three players I have known and admired deeply for nearly 40 years, who have played together on a regular basis for about half that time.  The weekend’s offering (I attended on Sunday) deserved notice for its world-premiere of Judith Weir’s Three Chorales for cello and piano.

The program began with Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 3, played by pianist Randall Hodgkinson with his usual panache and flair, along with violinist Sharan Leventhal, and cellist Jonathan Miller, BAE’s Artistic Director. One of three piano trios dedicated to Prince Karl Lichnowsky, from the get-go, this was the most popular of the set. In the lovely second theme-and-variation movement, Randall Hodgkinson’s handling of the lion’s share of notes reminded me of what a fabulous pianist he is.

The three musicians have performed together for decades, and it showed. Although most accomplished chamber music players can play well with little rehearsal, there still is something special, even magical, about longtime musical partnerships.

Judith Weir, renowned London-based composer (b. 1954) of Scottish ancestry, had never before written for cello with piano before Jonathan Miller commissioned her. The very resulting “Three Chorales for cello and piano,” will surely make a luminous and evocative addition to legions of cellists’ recitals. Weir introduced them with charm:

These three pieces meditate on images—personal, secular and musical— from religious poetry. The title of No. 1, “Angels bending near the earth,” comes from “It came upon the midnight clear” by the Massachusetts pastor and poet, Edmund Sears. The full reference is to “angels bending near the earth/ to touch their harps of gold” and this is the inscription for the music, with piano arpeggios swooping down over the rich central band of sound produced by the cello.

No. 2, “In death’s dark vale,” paraphrasing the 23rd Psalm (from a Scottish hymnal), evokes an image of living against the prospect of impending death. The cello plays a hasty, self-absorbed continuo, whilst around it, piano motifs and chords of different height and depth create an evolving backdrop.

The second is the only movement which quotes a musical source: Hildegard of Bingen’s hymn “O virtus sapientiae” (O strength of wisdom). Its calm, elegiac set of variations for the cello on Hildegard’s melody, partnered mostly bright, optimistic reflections from the piano.

Weir’s Three Chorales id exquisitely written for the cello. The first section matched a shimmering, feathery piano to long, soulful cello lines, “supremely lyrical,” in the words of Jonathan Miller. “I first had to figure out what an angel is—an interpretive hurdle,” he added. “I had to make it pure.” The second movement he described as “passionate, personal, full of angst,” while the third “starts in the 12th century and evolves into a romantic Elgar sound.”  Weir’s new work, like much of her music, enchantments with tunefulness and seductive simplicity.

Leventhal, Hodgkinson and MIller (Diane Fassino photo)
Leventhal, Hodgkinson and MIller (Diane Fassino photo)

The first and longest of Robert Schumann’s three piano trios, his D minor, marked a return to composing for the piano; he had already penned three string quartets, the piano quintet and the piano quartet. In the intervening years he had embraced the music of J. S. Bach and the art of contrapuntal writing. This is unmistakably reflected in the polyphonic world of this trio. He began in the spring of 1847, completed it a few months later, and presented it to his wife Clara, for her 28th birthday. “It sounds,” she wrote, “as if composed by one from whom there is still much to expect, it is so strong and full of youth full energy and at the same time worked out so masterfully. The first movement is to my mind one of the loveliest that I know.” She premiered it privately soon afterward with principals of the Dresden Court Orchestra. 

From its opening, the music is unmistakably Schumann’s. Sharan Leventhal played exquisitely throughout, as did her partners, in an extraordinarily tight ensemble. The slow third movement, particularly, overflowed with poetry.

BAE concerts featuring quartets of Szymanowski and Beethoven come on Fri. Nov. 11th and Sun., Nov. 13th.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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