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Harbison, Bax, and Brahms: BCMS Eclecticism

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Marcus Thompson (file photo

Boston Chamber Music Society’s concert Sunday night at Sanders lured in harpists, violists (I imagine), as well as fans of Harbison and of Brahms. For those who feel like every time they step out of their homes, they run into a different Harbison work, BCMS offered his String Trio, which the ensemble last performed in 2016.

Two world-class violists shared the stage, BCMS artistic director Marcus Thompson and the once-Boston based Dmitri Murrath, who now lives and teaches in San Francisco. Murrath has made something of a specialty of Sir Arnold Bax’s (1883-1953) Fantasy Sonata for Viola and Harp (1927) giving it several times with harpist June Han, and last night with the BSO harpist Jessica Zhou, who borrowed her friend June’s music. This taxing behemoth is not at all user-friendly for a harpist. Bax clearly had a thing for the harp. His best piece, I believe, is his Elegiac Trio (flute, harp and viola) which is half the Fantasy Sonata’s, length but very effective, with bewitching melodies and harmonies. He also composed a harp and strings quintet and a nonet with harp, as well as a Sonata for Flute and Harp that I heard of for the first time today. Oddly, he never wrote a solo piece for this instrument.

Bax wrote this Fantasy Sonata for the great Russian harpist Maria Korchinska (1895-1979), the first harpist to undertake the complete version of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols in 1943. I can count, on the fingers of one hand, the performances I know of the Fantasy Sonata. It has never been a piece I wanted to perform, even with my live-in violist (we did the Elegiac Trio many times). But harpists who have conquered the immense difficulties and marathon length of this piece seem to love it. I don’t think anyone is going to hear a better performance of it than Murrath’s and Zhou’s, which was simply magisterial.  Murrath played the viola as beautifully as I ever heard it played, which is saying a hell of a lot. Zhou nailed her marathon part, making sublime music with Murrath at every turn. It was really thrilling hearing these two superb players navigate these shoals. What a magical sound world these two musicians created.

Local musical hero John Harbison has hardly been ignored on his 80th birthday this year. Commissioned by Camerata Pacifica in California in 2013, his String Trio received a compelling performance by guest violinist Jesse Mills, violist Marcus Thompson, and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan. Harbison cleverly has addressed dearth of first-rate string trios in this six-movement work, paying homage to Mozart’s six-movement Divertimento for String Trio, K. 563, citing its “stretches of great learnedness and patches of casual geniality.”  Thompson writes: Harbison calls the earlier work “the once and future king” of the genre, acknowledging its “stretches of great learnedness and patches of casual geniality” and how it “exults in the sufficiency of two or three voices.” Where it departs most from the Mozart example is in its abundance of duos and expansive solo cadenzas for each of the instruments’ pairings, as well as sections where all three move in perfect rhythmic unison or staggered unison, i.e., in canon. In doing so he seems to exult in the ‘game’ of chamber music—unity through imitation and agreement—while exploring the freedoms of being left alone, or of recalling that sometimes ‘three’s a crowd!’  

Dmitri Murrath (file photo)

My friend (and guest thinker) really relished the trio’s inventiveness; I’d need a second hearing to fully understand its clever workings. The audience cheered Harbison, his trio and his inspiring presence in this town. He could not have asked for a better performance.

The trio’s strings were augmented by guest violinist Alyssa Wang and violist Dmitri Murrath for a lively performance of Brahms’ String Quintet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 88 (1882). Jan Swafford wrote

“As in the 1860s, Brahms, enjoying his liberation from the onus of genres the past had perfected, wrote two string sextets with great freedom and success, so in his maturity he produced two string quintets undaunted by Mozart’s great ones.”  Brahms felt this String Quintet was one of his finest works, and proclaimed to his publisher, Fritz Simrock, “You have never had such a beautiful work from me.”

I particularly love the lugubrious undertow of the first and second movements, but in truth, I love the whole piece, even its weak last movement. The many string solos came through with distinction; once again Dmitri Murrath played amazingly. Another memorable concert from The Boston Chamber Music Society. Their eclectic programs always work wonders.

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.

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  1. Susan, Thanks for an insightful and informative review of Sunday’s concert by BCMS. Marcus Thompson gathers amazing talent program after program to bring his audience music they’re unlikely to hear elsewhere. It was indeed a fabulous evening.

    Comment by jaylyn — April 16, 2019 at 9:11 am

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