Boston Chamber Music Society’s concert on this frigid Sunday at Sanders made me sorry I hadn’t heard this group more often. Six excellent string players, including guests Alexi Kenny, violin; the great Boston-based violist, Kim Kashkashian, and cellist Gabriel Cabezas, boasting a formidable boatload of prizes, competition triumphs, and accolades, brought really interesting chamber music to vivid life.
With a trio, then a quartet, and finally a sextet, it was Strings on Parade, and what a parade it was. In Ernö Dohnányi’s (1877-1960) Serenade for String Trio in C major, Op 10 (1902), with Kenney, Dimitri Murrath, viola; and Raman Ramakrishnan, cello, Kenney all but stole the show with his extraordinary tone, musicality, and stage presence. Although he has already won the 2013 Concert Artist Guild Competition and received a 2016 Avery Fisher Career Grant, I felt that I was “discovering” an honest-to-goodness future star. Throughout this concert, everything he did was breathtakingly good, and he had, even among these other lofty personages, something really special that kept one’s eyes and ears glued on him.
A wonderful concert opener, the Serenade is part of every string trio’s repertoire. After the 26-year-old Dohnányi wrote his Serenade in 1904 the same year as Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and the year Dvořák died. He went on in the 1920s to dominate the Hungarian musical scene as a pianist, teacher, and conductor; Bartok commented that Dohnányi was providing the nation’s entire musical life. By the 1930s he was director of the Budapest Academy, music director of Hungarian Radio, and chief conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic. Although he had a complicated political profile during the war years, and was cleared of charges of collaboration by the American occupation authorities, he nevertheless remained a controversial figure, whose post-war reputation suffered. In 1949, he moved to Tallahassee to teach at Florida State University. One of his graduate students was his own grandson, the conductor Christoph von Dohnányi.
The Serenade bursts with pleasant melodies, though its shifting chromatic tonality places it firmly in the 20th century. Murrath endowed his viola solos here and throughout the concert with distinction. Ramakrishnan executed impressively throughout as well. This is a piece that doesn’t get played all that often, and it was such a pleasure to hear it live and lively.
BCMS is honoring this 100th year of Debussy’s death by including his chamber music in five events. The three sonatas (for violin and piano, cello and piano, and flute, viola, and harp (with flutist Paula Robison, violist Marcus Thompson, and harpist Jessica Zhou will come on Sunday, February 18th) with Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson, dedicated to the woman who became Debussy’s wife.
Yesterday, the Debussy Quartet in G Minor, Op 10 (1893) featured violinists Yura Lee and Kenney, violist Murrath, and cellist Cabezas. I have always found it surprising when a group that has rehearsed for only one concert can sound as polished as an established quartet—happily the case here. I have enjoyed Lee’s playing several times before; this time she was simply sensational. Wow. One thing that struck me on my perhaps 100th hearing, was the ineffable sadness, especially in the second movement.
Finally, the sterling soloist Kim Kashkashian made it a team of six, in a spirited traversal of Dvořák’s String Sextet in A Major, Op. 48, written within 14 days in May 1878, shortly after the composer completed the piano version of his first series of Slavonic Dances, during the period between his work on the first and second Slavonic Rhapsodies. The Sextet bears the unmistakable imprint of the period during which he strove to introduce Slavic elements. Violinist Joseph Joachim loved the work, and he participated in a private debut gala honoring the composer in July 1879, and then performed it in Berlin later that year. Yesterday one could hear why it made an instant success throughout Europe; it’s got everything people love about Dvořák—a second movement ballad type folk song form called Dumka, a third movement marked Furiant, and a fast Bohemian/Czech folk dance with shifting accents and alternating duples and triples. Dvořákian tunes charmed from beginning to end, and there’s a nifty theme and variations in which Ramakrishnan made much of the lovely cello part. Elegance and fury somehow prevailed at the same time from all six personalities. If you didn’t freeze to death, or break a leg on the way to Sanders Theater, you got to hear a concert that made it truly worth braving the elements.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.