The Isabella Stewart Gardner Sunday Concert Series in Calderwood Hall continued as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center explored broad chamber music repertoire from the lyrical classicism of Haydn’s Piano Trio in F-sharp Minor to the pitch-bending drama of Ernest Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1. Michael Brown (piano), Nicholas Canellakis (cello), Kristen Lee (violin), Matthew Lipman (viola), and Danbi Um (violin) evoked the drama of Bloch’s extremes of mood and Dvořák’s cheerful if occasionally brusque folk idiom in his Terzetto for Two Violins and Viola. The Haydn, however, never quite settled into a comfortable stylistic space.
One of Haydn’s 30 piano trios, the F-sharp Minor from 1795 shares some of the agitation of the symphony that shares its key: no. 45 (1772) “The Farewell”. The outcome of an unlikely association with one Rebecca Schröter while Haydn lived in London, the trio perhaps conveys some of the longing of unrequited love. An injection of a little dramatic flavor disrupts what would have otherwise been a merely de rigeur outing from the great master. Perhaps this unusual aesthetic caused some complications in the piece’s interpretation on Sunday.
Richard E. Rodda notes that Haydn’s chamber works “are consistently pieces of substance, polish and originality”. While the polish was undoubtedly present on Sunday afternoon, I heard little substance in the trio’s interpretation, with the violin and piano not always agreeing on stylistic tradition—that of the late 18th or the mid-19th century. While I am not advocating for Historically Informed Performance Practice to be employed in this setting, I would have liked to hear a closer adherence to the classical style with a more judicious use of vibrato in the strings for one. In the first movement, a dramatic narrative was played out particularly keenly, with a little less grace than I would have liked. This was saved, however, by Danbi Um’s subtle placement of phrase endings.
The second movement brought Michael Brown’s smooth delicacy of touch and phrasing followed by an assured entry by Um, soaring above the piano. There was a slight disconnect here; while poise was never lacking from either musician, one got the sense that they had very different approaches to phrasing. This movement belongs to the keyboardist, and Brown made it his own; even when relegated to an alberti bass he was generous yet unobtrusive. Cellist Nicholas Canellakis supported the action confidently but with sufficient discretion so as to not overpower the violin or upper register of the piano.
In the Finale, we finally got some of the forward momentum with elegance that the previous two movements had been missing, as all three musicians clearly had a meeting of the minds. Communication was outstanding throughout and the movement delivered what the previous two had been lacking.
Composed in 1887, Dvořák’s Terzetto in C Major for Two Violins and Viola was written for the composer’s neighbor, an amateur violinist and the young man’s teacher, with Antonin on viola. Unfortunately, the piece turned out to be beyond the technical reaches of his neighbor, so the composer wrote another work for him in a week, the Four Romantic Pieces. Under pressure from his publisher to continue to quickly produce playable, salable works, Dvořák kept Simrock happy with two works that, like the earlier Slavonic Dances, were written with alacrity and sold very well. Lee, Um, and Lipman’s performance in all four movements of this work showed their sheer joy of playing—a joy that was infectious to the audience.
In the first movement, Matthew Lipman (viola) produced great contrasts—from deep, mellifluous sounds from the lowest register of his instrument to the playful and light hearted, clear, crisp upper registers, bringing out a range of unexpected colors. The perfect control here was visually represented in how the players moved their stands even closer together than the stage manager had originally placed them. They breathed as one, with each solo coming to the forefront just long enough to pass the next idea along. Um’s upper notes, far up the E string, remained silken, and Kristin Lee’s liveliness and sheer joie de vivre drove everyone forward. In the second movement, a sparkling pizzicato accompaniment whose very speed reminded me of the very opening measures of the Ravel Quartet’s 2nd movement, brought further energy to the ensemble. Even in moments of drama, sweetness prevailed.
Bloch’s Quintet No. 1 for Piano, Two Violins, Viola and Cello brought tour de force execution to a complex and nuanced work, demanding strength and virtuosity from each part. Having sketched between 1921 and 1923 as a sonata for cello and piano, Bloch broadened the instrumentation to a quintet, during his one day off per week from his directorship of the Cleveland Institute of Music.
The first movement mirrored its title ‘Agitato’, bringing a forceful, near manic energy. Dvořák’s Terzetto that came before it seemed to drive the musicians onward, but instead of the exuberant energy we heard before, it was translated into an edgy and penetrating freneticism. I heard less of the “utter pessimism” (Cole, quoted in Rodda’s program notes) and more a hectic (though beautifully carried off) cry of modernity. The Andante Mistico is very much the heart of this work, encompassing seemingly disparate characters and sound worlds. Mysticism in the form of pitch bends and quarter tones slowly merged with mechanical sounds, incorporating the wider world into the music. The emotional turmoil that we heard in the first movement remained, but in a calmer guise. The musicians handled frequent changes in timbre with ease. Brown’s communication never faltered, and Canellakis expertly brought cries of despair from the upper register of his cello. The repeated four-note motif, passed from one instrument to the next with grace and beauty, fear and longing, and a dream-like quality. The final movement suggested the possibility of hope and redemption, emerging from a simple yet haunting song heard first from the viola, leading to a subdued hymn-like passage.
While all the musicians showed both technical mastery and innovative musicality, the real star of this concert was violist Matthew Lipman. He played with grace and humor, agility, and a wealth of technical and musical expressions at his command, coupled with the wisdom to use them judiciously and effectively.
Georgia Luikens is a violinist who holds undergraduate degrees in music and English literature from the University of New South Wales. She has a Masters in musicology from Brandeis University where she is a doctoral candidate.