Boston Chamber Music Society offered up masterful performances of rarely heard works by Ravel, Loeffler, and Chausson on Sunday evening in Sanders Theater.
Violinist Yura Lee and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan opened with Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (1922). “I believe that the Sonata marks a turning point in my career. The music is stripped to the bone, harmonic charm is renounced and there is a return…to melody,” Ravel wrote, but the composer, who spent the better part of a year and half writing the piece, also described it as “…a truly symphonic work for two instruments.” Perhaps sparse in texture, by necessity of instrumentation, it feels symphonic in scope.
Annotator Rebecca Marchand pointed out: “Originally titled ‘Duo,’ the Sonata…was dedicated to the memory of Debussy. Characterized by what Mark DeVoto notes as ‘intensity and austerity,’ the work pairs neoclassical ideologies with a fascination with texture and harmonic dualities.” In other program notes, David Yang amusingly observes: “The piece is really one conversation between two voices, usually in harmony but with the occasional and inevitable flare up. I’ve seen videos of the Coen brothers directing and watched how they work as if each knew exactly what the other were thinking; that’s what this piece is like…The dream-like opening conjures up a vision of a lunar landscape…the two engage in a weird private dance with leaping, whirling, spinning, shaking, and mock threatening moves against one another, all in play.”That would describe Lee’s and Ramakrishnan’s superb chemistry throughout. Nearly at all times, they spun out the notes with an almost innocent, improvisational feel. The two artists seemed to riff off one another, exchanging motive and melody, as well as some really strange supporting material. And while the movement slows and speeds up in places, it possessed a quasi-perpetual-mobile quality, too, because there is never a break in the quarter-note sequencing until the end. Marchand points out that Ravel had also characterized the duo as “a machine for two instruments.”
Pizzicato in “stereo” launched the Très Vif movement to brilliant effect, each individual starting or finishing the other’s musical gesture. Very clever sonic stuff from M. Ravel. Here, the rhythm always propelled the music (still on the moon it seemed) but more with mantra-like repetitions than perpetual motion. The melodic material was more tongue-out (as opposed to in cheek) taunting than anything else. Good, strange stuff, so appropriately delivered by the pair: cello—stubborn, mean, and spunky; violin—angular and cutting. Poof! It was over, each adult having survived the other’s childish behavior none the worse for wear, with no memory of it even having occurred.
Lent (third movement), which Marchand describes as a “wistful canon…austere, but not devoid of emotion,” felt also like a bizarre Shaker hymn (a Shaker hymn on the moon), receiving lush and gorgeous execution from both. A middle section sounded beautifully muted (but I did not see mutes). Lee seemed to have somehow exchanged her violin for a viola here. Pain discoursed ever so stoically.
Vif, avec entrain (…with enthusiasm) revealed equally strange stuff, with even craggier leaps and fugal motivic back-and-forths than in the first movement, but grounded more in the old American west than anyplace on the moon. A galloping dotted rhythmic theme alternated with a jabbing, repeated note theme, for excellent, relentless effect. Lee and Ramakrishnan synced and tuned perfectly, right up to the rousing and welcome (as Ravel intended) end. This performance stunned, not just because of the two players, but because Ravel uncharacteristically chose to whack us all around a bit.
Loeffler’s Two Rhapsodies for Viola, Oboe and Piano represent a “substantial revision and reconceptualization of two earlier songs from 1898 for voice, clarinet, viola, and piano. The poetry of the songs, by Maurice Rollinat…is highly evocative, drawing upon Baudelairesque symbolism. While there are certain musical references to images of the text, Loeffler embraces the license of the ‘rhapsody’ genre… to move in and out of the programmatic narrative” (Marchand). In other words, the poems are super-gloomy, ghostly, depressing, and reeking of death, while the two Rhapsodies are sweet, lovely works with a tinge of melancholy.
We don’t often get treated to this combination of sound. When we do, it’s easy to get lulled into Absinthe-induced, semi-comatose reverie (hmm…maybe there’s more of a connection to that French poetry than I thought).
L’Étang (The Pool). I want to say that Marcus Thompson shined as violist, but it would be more accurate to say that he shimmered; he was the center of this first Rhapsody. That rich, dark, carefully controlled sound he produced, with such an economy of motion, was a hedonistic treat. Layered with Peggy Pearson’s sweet and soaring oboe, in Loeffler’s compositional hands, this was almost too much of a good thing. Almost. Max Levinson at the piano provided an arsenal of effects, structural support, and his own soloist temperament where appropriate. As in food and wine pairings, rich on rich can be tricky.
La Cornemuse (The Bagpipe). Here, the piano shone more as the vehicle for establishing the character of a free-form Rhapsody. And the title of “lead” tilted to Pearson, oboe, instead of Thompson, viola. In this second Rhapsody, Levinson sometimes treated the piano as two different instruments, as if we were hearing a quartet instead of a trio. There was bass piano support, but also middle of the keyboard treatment to counter and accompany the viola, oboe and the pianist’s own bass, with lots of coloristic effects on top. This was rich (oboe) on rich (viola), over semi-rich (piano), but with, at times, a contrasting leanness and focus of sound from Pearson and Thompson, and good awareness of balance from Levinson, so that all was kept in check. Not too much, not too filling. A good thing, what with four, filling courses yet to come by way of Ernest Chausson
Marchand provided an excellent introduction to Chausson’s Concerto in D Major for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet, op. 21 (1889-91): “The emphatic piano motive motif that opens the Décidé [first movement] provides a sonic anchor for the entire movement, although Chausson crafts it into a theme that capitalizes upon the variety of emotional opportunities made available by the instrumentations. When the fully-fledged theme first appears in the solo violin over rhapsodic arpeggiations in the piano, it seems injected with Romantic pathos.” Well said!
The stage arrangement and artist gestures hinted early that Thompson led the quartet, but later that became less clear. Perhaps violinist Lee was leading, too, for different movements? Levinson launched the work (as noted above), then the quartet added buoyancy, as the music floated forward, with Alyssa Wang also on violin and Ramakrishnan again on cello.
Jennifer Frautschi jumped on board soon after, and took over, as violin soloist for the “concert / concerto.” With her entry, the quartet was replaced by the piano, sharing the soloist role, and there were early indications that this was going to be roller coaster ride for Levinson, with wave after wave of difficult arpeggios, scales, and much more at the keyboard. (The pianist scheduled for the premiere bowed out only a few days before the performance, citing difficulty, but a virtuoso replacement arrived in the nick of time). Frautschi projected brilliant lyricism and passion.
With so much rubato and nuance when all six were in the fray, ensemble remained wonderfully in sync, even when phrases were stretched like taffy to accommodate so many difficult and note-y piano passages. And that stretching only helped the musicmaking, which was big and bold, dramatic and colorful.
The 2nd movement, Sicilienne: Pas vite, floated, with Frautschi at the helm mostly, and Levinson occasionally, each deftly riding the lilting, barcarolle-like waves of the quartet. There were spotlights on short duos between the various instruments, such as viola with violin solo but almost every other combination of the instruments, too. Lovely music-making.
Marchand referenced the “walking chromatic eighths” in Levinson’s piano part that open the third movement, Grave, that establishes the dark, foreboding mood of the movement. Frautschi followed suit with an equally depressing interpretation. The quartet didn’t enter for what seems like minutes. When they did, they, along with Levinson, brought the music to a more morbid place. A dotted rhythm took over the piano bass and the music began, briefly, to lose containment, becoming more rich, lush, and even more deliciously chromatic, with a thick, morbid melancholy, stemming from the worm-like tarantella bass of the piano. With that dotted rhythm, it seemed like a wormy, slow, fin-de-siècle tango.
Relief from the Grave, the Très animé finale began with punctuated dialogue between piano and strings. A slower section allowed Levinson to really come forth at the piano, likewise for Frautschi’s lushness, and the quartet providing more subdued support. If Frautschi could be faulted, it would be for always projecting a gorgeous, full forte. Given the deference from the quartet, the soloists had the plenty of dynamic space to come down in volume. When the quartet did play out, and they did often, especially as this work came to a close, it seemed that there were far more than six instruments stage, dispensing huge, Romantic, and rich brew. Levinson showed an amazing balance at the keyboard, with waves of sound alternately bright and crisp, then dark and thick, in the background, then in the foreground, with so much variety and musical character to the hundreds of passages and zillions of notes Chausson tasked him with. He seldom got to rest, and displayed a real virtuosic mastery. The same could be said of Frautschi and the quartet, too, but they didn’t have quite the same assignment. With big drama emanating from all six, the concerto came to a rousing close. Bravo!