The Boston Chamber Music Society program Sunday night at Sanders Theater offered a satisfying mix of old and new, of which the latter was a premiere from one of Boston’s most reliably satisfying composers. While presenting the listener with many of BCMS’s traditional virtues, and some new ones, the execution was not, however, entirely problem-free.
Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E-flat, Op. 70 No. 2, like the composer’s even-numbered symphonies, lives somewhat in the shadow of its next-door neighbor, which is that perennial favorite the Ghost Trio. It is nevertheless, as one would expect from Beethoven’s prime middle period, a work of immense mastery and interest. No need for a basic description, there’s a serviceable one here if your recollection needs jogging (though it should be mentioned that the variations of the second movement are really double variations, taking the procedures of the Fifth Symphony’s slow movement one step farther). The BCMS trio, consisting of violinist Yura Lee, cellist Ranan Ramakrishnan, and guest pianist Andrew Armstrong (a great and in this case entirely appropriate surname for a pianist), got off to a brilliant start by raising the introduction’s music out of nothingness. Unfortunately, that approach, especially by the strings, persisted throughout the entire work, where many passages called for a gruffer, more pointed presentation than the uniformly suave, diffident elegance that emerged. Armstrong was impressive, with unfailing brightness, deftness, and clarity. There were some high spots from the whole ensemble: the final variation in the second movement saw an uptick in mojo, and the famous tune of the third movement definitely benefited from the strings’ unperturbed poise.
The first half ended with the premiere of an oboe quintet, called Entre Nous, by David Rakowski, long a fixture in the composition department at Brandeis. The quintet was commissioned by BCMS’s in-house commissioning club, a wonderful concept, and was written for the soloist, new BCMS member and longtime luminary Peggy Pearson. Rakowski’s music, even the most serious, is always full of fun, or at least reflects his irrepressible wit. In brief introduction and in his written note, he alluded to ideas in the three-movement piece being tossed about like a hot potato, and the “devilish scherzo” finale that quotes a snip from the second movement of the Beethoven trio on the program. The first movement certainly lived up to its billing: beginning with an inchoate and mysterious pizzicato passage, it coalesced into a lively discussion of rising and falling minor thirds, with the oboe’s flowing line (Pearson’s tone was superb, bespeaking a virtuoso who shows no sign of decline) usually set off against the jaggier, chattier, and sometimes jazzier burble of the strings (violinists Harumi Rhodes and Lee, violist Dimitri Murrath, and Ramakrishnan), punctuated with Haydnesque pauses. The slow movement is lyrical without cloy, with short phrases stretching and ramifying. A center section focuses on a turn, sounding like a quote from Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, becoming agitated in the strings while the oboe remains above the fray with an anodyne descant. The finale was the only part that left us a little let down, inasmuch as it didn’t seem quite as devilish as it might have been, and could have used more dynamic force. Still, we hope the quintet, which might have made a great entry for the Cobbett Prize if that were still around (not strictly for oboe quintets, but there were some really good ones that came out of that competition, such as Britten’s), gets more play; it’s definitely an enhancement to the repertoire.
The second half was devoted to another chamber staple, one of our favorites: the Schumann Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44. The world has much to thank Schumann for, but maybe it should thank him most for the invention of the piano quintet, which has become a mainstay of chamber music. It’s hard to believe now that prior to this work piano quintets (that is, piano with string quartet) existed almost exclusively as a means of reducing orchestral scores. To make things even better, Op. 44 is a product of Schumann’s “manic” Florestan side, always exhilarating to experience. Armstrong had it nailed, right out of the box; the strings (same complement as above), despite impeccable tone, intonation and ensemble, a bit less so. Things improved as they went along, their understated elegance becoming a virtue in the slow movement, and the agitated second episode was spot on; we loved Murrath’s passage transitioning back to the main theme. The scherzo, for whose delightful second trio one has Mendelssohn’s suggestion to thank, was bright, bubbly, and peppy, and the finale, despite some squareness in the phrasing, showed fine energy and momentum, leading to the remarkable double fugue on the themes of the first and fourth movements that sends the work to its impressive end.