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BCMS: 60 Minutes of First-Rate Playing


Joan Tower (Su-pin Tsao / BCMS photo)

Continuing its trudge back to normality, the Boston Chamber Music Society staged its second Covid-Era in-the-flesh production on Sunday afternoon at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center; it also thoughtfully hybridized the arrangements by offering anyone foreclosed from the attendance-restricted event the option of live streaming. This is actually one of the pandemic-induced improvisations that might have legs for permanent adoption, and it certainly made sense in light of the pretty limited (150 seats), and fully utilized, capacity of the venue.

The luncheon-length program, rich in Romantic atmosphere and running without intermission, began with Brahms’s Scherzo in C Minor, WoO 2, that composer’s contribution to the so-called F-A-E Sonata.  Robert Schumann had ginned up a violin sonata in 1853 in honor of the then 22-year-old violinist Joseph Joachim, who had already served as concertmaster at the Gewandhaus and the Hannover opera. The “F-A-E” stood for “frei aber einsam,” “free but lonely,” which was Joachim’s archly Romantic artistic motto; needless to say, those notes were prominently featured in the work as a whole (though not, as it happens, in Brahms’s movement). The sonata’s first movement was written by Schumann’s student Albert Dietrich, while the second and fourth were taken on by Schumann himself. For the record, Brahms took the motto F-A-F for frei aber froh (free but happy).

Brahms’s movement demonstrates just how fully formed he was as a musical personality even at the tender age of 20. Despite the Romantic storminess of the movement’s outer sections, it adheres perfectly to the boundaries of classical form. One hears at once the connection to the scherzos of the Piano Quintet (1864) and the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1881). One also hears, prominently to the point of obsession, the invocation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which seems to be a characteristic feature of pieces Brahms wrote in C minor, such as the Piano Quartet No. 3 and, of course, the First Symphony. What’s interesting about Brahms’s usage here is that the four-note motto is more likely to turn upward at the end rather than downward, as in Beethoven, suggesting at times a feeling more like that of the finale to the Horn Trio, only not as jolly—let’s call it hopeful. As performed by Yura Lee, violin, and Max Levinson, piano, this cloudburst of a movement had them digging in quite appropriately, with brief but gentle respite in the trio section. Lee’s tonal values were splendid, as were both players’ phrasing and dynamics, with one exception: Brahms’s piano part is particularly aggressive, and it takes considerable restraint to keep the instrumental balance in line. Levinson did occasionally cover Lee, but not nearly as badly as Yuja Wang covered Leonidas Kavakos in this video, ouch.

The premiere of Purple Rain, a single-movement piece for string quintet (two violas), commissioned by BCMS from the eminent composer Joan Tower took pride of place in the program. Now, the answer to the question you are all silently asking, is “no.” To it, as posed by us on your behalf, Tower responded with words to the effect of “who is this prince* of whom you speak?” No, the real story is that Tower has always thought synesthetically about the viola’s sound being purple, and has consequently written an informal series of pieces, three solos and one concerto (actually a concertante rhapsody), featuring that instrument with “purple” in the title (they’re all wonderful, by the way). To this titling formula the word “rain” signals concepts particular to this piece, which suggests liquid precipitation in a variety of intensities, guises, and moods. This rain motif picks up on another fine tradition in music, notably in Romantic music, from Beethoven to Chopin to Brahms.

Tower’s Purple Rain reads like a rondo, in which the hard-driving downpour music, fast repeated notes with angular accents, alternates with gentler episodes of pitter-patter and rainy-day moods that generally feature solos for each instrument, with the violas (Dimitri Murrath and Marcus Thompson) both singly and, quite beautifully, together. These lyrical passages sneak in some sinuous chromaticism (we especially liked the ones for second violin (Lee) and cello (Raman Ramakrishnan), while that for first violin (Jennifer Frautschi) sweetly soared. Much of the musical material was scalar in structure, but not until near the end, most notably in a delightful pizzicato passage, did we get the whole-tone scales that are something of a Tower signature gesture. Both harmonically and structurally, this piece was eminently user- and listener-friendly; you’ll know the coda when you hear it, and after several repetitions of a leading-tone, it ends with the sunshine of a serene triad (spoiler: not the tonic). Our take is that this will make a lasting addition to the string quintet repertoire.

BCMS closed with another Romantic favorite, the Piano Quartet No. 1 in C Minor (nice pick-up of key from the Brahms) by Gabriel Fauré. The composer completed the quartet in 1879 after three years’ work, then completely rewrote the original finale in 1883. As a consequence, the outer movements consolidate an esthetic program pitting a skipping rhythm against a flowing triplet one (the thematic material in all this is not so similar that it would qualify as traditional cyclic form, but the rhythmic cycling establishes kinship with Brahms’s first violin sonata of 1879. This traversal, in which Frautschi, Murrath and Ramakrishnan joined Levinson, went for emPHAsis over delicacy (an excess of which is a frequent hazard of Fauré interpretation), starting right off in the first movement, where the ensemble evinced full Romantic ardor, with excellent attention to melodic and harmonic motion. The fleet and fluent scherzo, with flashier virtuosity than is normal for Fauré, gave Levinson a chance to romp. In the mournful slow movement, often associated by commentators with the composer’s broken engagement to Marianne Viardot in 1877, though, things started going a bit pear-shaped: Adagio is not Largo, and the notes started hanging heavy in the becalmed air. Similarly, while the first movement is marked Allegro molto moderato (very moderately fast), the finale is Allegro molto (very fast), but it certainly didn’t seem that way. The quality of the playing was first-rate throughout, but the lack of forward momentum brought the overall experience down.

There being no other convenient place to put them, here are a couple of random observations about the production and venue. Starting with the latter, while the CMAC is a lovely space in East Cambridge, set up on the second floor of part of the former Middlesex County courthouse, the venue needs to address accessibility issues, particularly regarding the railing-free steps on the risers used for some of the seating. We noticed several elderly patrons having difficulty negotiating them, both going up and coming down. See a review from the previous BCMS concert there with an illustrative picture of the space HERE.

We know it’s been a long and difficult period for performing organizations. They have coped in many cases imaginatively and in ways that they might want to continue, as noted above. One thing we hope doesn’t continue is the shrinkage of content. Rather like the incredible shrinking chocolate bar, the amount of music in a concert has gone down from the old standard of roughly 75 minutes exclusive of intermission, to under 60. Sometimes this was quite understandable: in some instances ticket revenues could not be made up in fees for streaming access, and before pretty much universal immunization audiences and performers were chary of being in each other’s presence for long periods. But with the return of live performance in the wake of comprehensive vaccination (which of course the organizations verify), a return to the old standard would be welcome. Under that standard, this program could easily have accommodated the entire F-A-E Sonata, for example.

* Prince Purple Rain

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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