Due to a last-minute indisposition on the part of the fortepianist, the scheduled Mendelssohn Lieder and Piano Trio No. 1 were not performed at the Handel and Haydn chamber concert at the Gardner Museum on Sunday. But Mendellsohnian elegance remained in the form of the altogether phenomenal Mozart Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563, for string trio—not only the first major work for that combination of instruments, but still considered the greatest ever written, inspiring among others our own John Harbison in his String Trio of 2013.
Karina Schmitz, viola; and Guy Fishman, cello joined H + H Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky in a riveting take on the Mozart. Playing on period instruments, they brought out fine textures and granular detail. In the opening allegro, Fishman’s cello was feisty at first, then dark and mysterious in the development. Throughout, the three balanced and interacted attentively, sharing the shifting spotlight seamlessly. Nossky expertly led the ensemble, mainly with her eyes, and shaped the phrasing, intonation and dynamics.
In the solemn and superb Adagio, the trio sang the first theme aria-like, with a bitter-sweet sadness that evoked the distance between dreams and reality, pointing to the futility but also the irrepressible allure of hope. The first minuet movement came as a playful, almost raucous Ländler, the trio lighter but more serious. Schmitz’s viola (the instrument played by Mozart at the work’s premiere) featured prominently in the ensuing Andante, navigating a mock-serious but deeply wise theme through variations full of lusciously conflicting textures and concluding with a whirlwind of energy full of joy. Imbued with a genuine impulse to dance, the second minuet found a more serene character than the first. Schmitz introduced a marvelously fine aesthetics of doubt in the first Trio section. The second Trio section, in contrast, subtly conveyed an undercurrent of fatalism.
The Sonata-Rondo structure of the final Allegro movement brilliantly journeyed through a landscape of delights and obstacles, terrors and pleasures, only to return upon itself like a celestial journey of eternal recurrence, implying that life itself is a Divertimento on a cosmic and divine scale.
Following intermission, Fiona Hughes, violin; Jenny Stirling, viola;, and Sarah Freiberg, cello; joined the earlier three for the Brahms Sextet in B-flat Major, Op. 18 (1860), the first of his two string sextets. The opening Allegro ma non troppo movement started sweepingly, tender and inspired at first, vast and elegiac by the end, with Nossky’s violin keeping it infused with a deep lyricism through the repeated welling up of momentum aimed at a climax that was constantly deferred. The second movement Andante unfolded more as an epic than as a dirge, more defiant than mournful, more cathartic than desolate, as though finding gratification in the sublimity of human fate and pain. The exhilarating and liberating Scherzo yet managed to develop from a more explosive to a more mature, cautious joy.
The final rondo movement is often problematic. Here the sextet gave structure and direction to the somewhat meandering themes and episodes by using phrasing and dynamics to prepare us for the recurrent “welling of self-confidence” theme. The second episode especially felt like a logical outburst and breaking of restraints, leading to a true return home after an adventuresome journey. Fishman and Freiberg provided remarkable depth and energy. The coda evoked a reluctance to leave, followed by a joyful self-affirmation and a farewell. The sold-out house showed appreciation with an extended ovation.