The verdict from this jury of one is in on a world premier: We welcome Lowell Liebermann’s1 new Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 138 (2021) into the standard repertoire and the classical Elysium. Boston Chamber Music Society’s joint commission on behalf of clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois produced an accessible, engaging, and friendly-yet challenging winner. The fully committed pianist Max Levinson opened the piece Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall with watery arpeggios (we didn’t know it then, but the water surrounded middle movement of transcendent desert-island rapture) which floated a clarinet aria of the most lyrical vocal qualities. No ugly leaps or angularities did we hear in the clarinet’s long-breathed languorous lines across its seamlessly unbroken registers. And de Guise-Langlois also ravished with her extraordinary altissimo pianissimos and soulful phrase-ending vibratos. Deliciously and mysteriously shifting moods morphed within a sinuous play of intertwined and fully attuned partners, eventually accelerating through simultaneous rapid figurations to a flutter tonguing section. We heard Janissaries marching over an etudenish passageway, then lovers trading caresses, before a passionate clarinet sob opened into a metaphysical incantation. The movement’s journey ended on the wet shore where it began.
The haunting and compelling slow movement quietly invited us in, casting a timeless spell from which we sought no release. The piano’s cushioned, serpentine embrace of the clarinet’s vocalise reached Liebestod intensity before closing in rarefied afterglow. The concluding molto allegro called out with perfectly aligned fast passagework and answered with consolations, relegating conflict to distant echoes. Then a Bachian groove (perhaps via Poulenc) gets going before Pulcinella interrupts with both comic and dark asides in his fleeting moment; finally the composer puts Bach back on speed. In writing material which required the players to listen intently to each other, Liebermann also welcomed engaged auditors into his sonorous sphere.
The repertoire for string trio comprises but a tiny fraction of those for piano trio and string quartet. It contains but a very few masterpieces such as Schubert’s String Trio D 471, Mozart’s Divertimento for String Trio K. 563, Beethoven’s String Trio No. 4, Op. 9, No. 3, Reger’s String Trio. It’s true that Haydn composed something like 26 moderately interesting string trios, and 126 somewhat tedious, early musicy trios for the archaic baryton (the instrument of kings). In coming up with an engaging Haydn opener in the string trio genre, BCMS Artistic Director Marcus Thompson wisely chose an anonymous transcription of the familiar and popular Piano Sonata in G, Hob. XVI:40 [Brendel does it supple and witty justice HERE]. Enrobed in gorgeous, impeccably refined string tone, the frothy two-movement sonata took on an elegant stateliness, though certainly without any staidness. In short, we heard more warm heart than playful frolic in this traversal. The tight ensemble laid down impeccably agreed-upon accents and generously rotated dominance, though violinist Yura Lee commanded the proceedings with gigantic tone, especially amazingly on her cello-like G string. She and her partners violist Marcus Thompson and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan never shifted into interpretive overdrive. Their delivery of Haydn’s musical pleasures elicited smiles and unalloyed joy prevailed.
Frankly, we went to hear the closer, Saint-Saëns’s Piano Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 41. Get an idea how essential this piece should be to the chamber music world by listening to the Manhattan Chamber Players’ account produced by this writer last year at the Harvard Musical Association [HERE along with Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor]. It can come across as a piano concerto, especially when the keyboardist totally ignites like Levinson did yesterday with fleet scales in octaves, and pretty much double whatevers throughout…, but an inflammable Yura Lee boosted it into a double concerto, albeit with excellent support from the lower strings of Ramakrishnan and Thompson. What a barn burning ensued.
“Bach and Mozart … never sacrificed form to expression,” according to the preternaturally polymathematical Saint-Saëns. He certainly constructed this quartet with polished forms and grateful homages to his artistic forbears, but despite his stated intentions, strong expression kept bursting out of the learned frame. The foursome passionately illumined this marvelous miscellany of Bachic fugues, A Midsummer Night’s Dream fairies, Danse Macabre’s skeletons, fevered string mastery as in the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and piano virtuosity from the composer’s own concertos (and the four-hands piano part from the Organ Symphony) without ever straying from elegance and good form. The performance rollicked to a close, again, just where it had begun—to tremendous effect.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer