In a solemn Sanders Theater Sunday, the Boston Chamber Music Society never strayed too far from themes of mortality. Indeed, before the music even began, a representative of the organization stepped out to dedicate the event to a patron of the Society, Dr. Joyce B. Friedman, who recently died. Only the first piece, Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata avoided explicit connections to death, although, as is characteristic of the composer, it provides ample moments when the piece’s contemplative leanings seem to wander beyond the realm of the here and now. Arensky’s Quartet for violin, viola, and two cellos Op. 35 in A minor and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor Op. 50, are elegiac and honor deceased composer friends. However, the vivacious and generous music making of BCMS’s familiar faces mitigated the somber context of the repertoire.
Dimitri Murrath and Max Levinson, by now old friends of the Boston audience, presented a narratively compelling Arpeggione Sonata. The intimate and colorful silences of Levinson’s opening extinguished the hubbub that precedes every concert. Immediately the room seemed to shrink as the performers, with muted dynamics, expanded on the sonatas’s inner landscape. Contrasting with the lyrical and noble first theme, Murrath took obvious delight in the devilish side of the tarantella-esque second theme. When they reached the recapitulation, the musicians draped the theme in an unmistakable sorrow that was not present in the exposition. The resigned closing chords, given in a wonderfully somber fortissimo, acknowledged this sorrow and created a vast arc from the movement’s opening measure to the last.
In a quirk that became a theme of the evening, Levinson shied away from some of the first movement’s sforzandos, though he usually cosigned this underplaying to purely accompanimental passages. Nonetheless, at their best, Levinson’s ultra pianissimos evidenced thoughtful and refined pianistic collaboration while other instances verged on a of sort genteel politeness, leaving one wondering what the harmony might have been if it were more audible. This proved especially troublesome given the duo’s slower tempo (customarily taken) in the coda of the first movement when the harmony is practically the only element sustaining the dwindling and fragmented notes.
Murrath shone in the second movement, adorning the melody in a tone he had yet to reveal in the first movement. Levinson’s careful support allowed the violist to bring to the fore some quivering details in the lied’s contour without losing the boundless scope of this movement’s phrases. Murrath’s ingenuity gave a compelling answer to a recurring musical problem: how much should one smooth over an attaca transition between movements? Are they still to be heard as separate entities or are they conceived as a seamless span? This duo answered with the latter as Murrath hardly took any time in the dominant descent towards the lovely A major of the final movement. In this ultimate of three sections, both players seemed to be enjoying themselves though perhaps Levinson could have responded more playfully to Murrath’s coquettishness. On the whole, the sonata felt deeply pleasant as the final major chords of the last movement, once again played in a reserved manner, showed the other side of the coin that was the somber first movement.
A cursory search showed that the most relevant name outside of Arensky to have composed a quartet with two cellos instead of two violins is Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, one of Beethoven’s teachers. Outside of these, the list of compositions for this grouping is remarkably short. Needless to say, the unusual instrumentation left me with great anticipation as to what was in store. Right from the beginning, a stunning atmosphere brimmed from the stage as, by divine inspiration, the group found perfect blend from the very first note. After a smokey and dark chant-like opening, the violinist Jennifer Frautschi, ventured onto her higher strings with a silvery tone in search of less barren vistas. The entire piece was a fantastic revelation. The double cellos serve as two feet on the ground as the violin looks to the sky and the viola acts as the mediating heart of the work. Throughout, Arensky gives episodes to the viola and first cello (in this grouping the ‘middle’ strings), which Murrath and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan always projected with due import. Compounding the contemplative and grounded, this movement lacks the searing climax that can be found in so many of Brahms’s first movements. After a breathtaking return to the opening chant theme, the first movement of the work, which is dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky, ends in tearless despair.
To facilitate the development required by the form, variation movements often feature rather simple themes. This being said, Arensky’s theme and variation second movement possesses wonderful character. The quartet rendered the opening with a distinct nobility, yet this nobility had nothing to do with tzars or European courts. It was the aristocracy of human sentiment: abstractly mournful, rich, and never overstated. Thank goodness for this since the sorrowful plains of the first movement had left the soul quite weary. Guest artist Audrey Chen demonstrated her quality in the second cello solos as her longevity of phrasing rose beautifully above her happily chirping collaborators. Despite frequent provision of brightness, it fell to the viola alone, as the coda reached its end, to remind the quartet of the opening Moderato’s pathos-laden chant sections.
After the first two movements’ Dostoyevsky-like ruminations on the human spirit, the third provided a rather straightforward close. Towards the end, Murrath and Frautschi handled a rapid unison passage with rollicking aplomb and, smiling, the two cellos joined the fun as the piece reached its final measures. No recording I could find online lived up to the sometimes solemn, sometimes jocund humanistic purview of the BCMS quartet.
Following the already substantial first half came one of the behemoths of chamber literature: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio Op. 50 in A Minor. Because the trio is dedicated to the memory of Anton Rubinstein, one wonders if the gargantuan piano part, by its sheer size alone, is intended to pay homage to the man who initially labeled Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto unplayable. Levinson was more than up to the challenge as his luxurious virtuosity took on an awe-inspiring warrior-poet dimension that deservedly brought the audience immediately to its feet at the piece’s close. If only he had refrained from his ultra pianissimo in the opening measures so that he might’ve laid a better foundation for the grand scroll that about to unravel…
Tchaikovsky himself is known to have had an aversion to the genre of the piano trio. Indeed, he disliked any combination of piano and strings, citing that given the timbres involved, it would be impossible to achieve a unified group sound. Every ensemble must decide whether the form and the composition demand three soloists or a properly unified threesome. To my view, Frautschi felt soloistic in tone, while Levinson channeled collaboration and accommodation. The subtle disconnect between violin and piano became especially noticeable in the evocative ninth variation of the second movement; here Frautschi played her melody with mournful pride while Levinson sent out spooky arpeggios which came off more as a difference in concept than a thoughtful juxtaposition.
This distracted only slightly from an otherwise powerful and grand performance. Levinson’s exposed lines in the mazurka variation left one yearning for the pianist’s next solo recital. Boston is truly lucky to hear him so regularly. Ramakrishnan displayed his class as he always managed to assert himself in the unforgiving texture of a piano trio and especially dazzled with a princely charm in the sixth variation: tempo di valse. As the piece reached its climax with the return of the first movement’s theme, Levinson was veritably breathing fire; truly noisy and bounteous appreciation ensued.
Pierre-Nicolas B. Colombat is a pianist, writer, and concert organizer. Having studied at BU and NEC, he endeavors to connect local musicians through concerts, essays, a podcast, and founding the Boston Community Studio Class.