Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s Director Barry Shiffman introduced the season’s first Saturday evening concert by noting that it required seasoned, accomplished musicians and inspired performances to overcome the “old chestnut” programming we were about to hear. Shiffman, a respected performer on both violin and viola, correctly predicted that the evening would be more than successful, given the performers and their collaborative ensemble playing. Adding to the anticipatory mood was the timing of the concert, which allowed the harbor backdrop to pass from warm early summer evening through to civil, then nautical and finally, celestial twilight, by the concert’s conclusion.
In the first half, the Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong, violin; Ken Hamao, violin; Jessica Bodner, viola; Kee-Hyun Kim, cello), in residence at Harvard University and carrying out a more-than-busy, peripatetic schedule, graced the venue, along with the spectacular clarinetist, Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Phil, in a near-to-perfection rendition of the sometimes-too-familiar Mozart K 581 clarinet quintet in A Major. Seated in the center, flanked by the Parkers, McGill’s showed a happily confident demeanor, if moving parsimoniously while creating a smooth, delicious sound. The quintet as composed has incantatory melodies and unusual structural elements. In this soaringly melodic work, the strings initiate the lyrical first movement, joined after a few measures by the clarinet’s mellow voice, this night gorgeously rendered by McGill. The second features beautiful melodies, but the first violin line often seems a tad shrill, though minimally so in this performance. The third movement, a minuet with not one but two trios provides unusual beauty, arrived with feeling here. The first of the trios is all strings, while the in second the clarinet dominates with a Ländler-like mood with minimal string accompaniment. The final movement substitutes variations for a usual rondo. McGill and Parkers enchanted the audience with their collaboration. I doubt whether Anton Stadler, for whom the work was written in 1789, could have played it any better.
After an intermission, featuring a glorious end-of-spring evening, the Parkers added Shiffman on viola and award-winning cellist Ani Aznavoorian in the first of Brahms’s string sextets, finished on the banks of the Elbe in 1860, when the vacationing composer was in his late 20s (and recovering from a called-off engagement). The work takes roughly 40 minutes and displays evident influence of earlier composers, yet shines with Brahms’s own bright star. The first movement allegro ma non troppo in 3/4 time contains luscious themes, deftly introduced here by Kim and then taken up by the violins and viola. The second theme is equally lyrical, and the mix of pizzicato and bowing makes this movement a favorite of many; the group did not disappoint. Bodner as first viola introduced the D minor second movement, andante, ma moderato, with its poignant version of the theme from the Baroque La Folia, supported by the second viola and cellos, later the violins. The ensemble interpretation of the five variations, with their deepening sadness stirred emotions, though the 4th and 5th are in major keys. The brief third movement scherzo conveyed lightness and respite, but hastens and darkens a bit, with each voice hastening with peremptory push. Cellist Kim lightened the mood with the start of the fourth movement, Rondo: Poco Allegretto e Grazioso. It is worth remembering that this sextet, Opus 18, preceded Brahms’s string quartets and presaged the profound beauty of those string chamber works he allowed to survive. These two shining classics left us with the promise of more opportunities to engage in beautiful listening at the well-programmed RCMF this summer.