Local bars had stiff competition for patrons this past St. Patrick’s Day as the Glissando Chamber Music Series showcased works by Schumann, Brahms, and Beethoven alongside music by a living composer, Christopher Trapani. Friday night’s concert at First Church in Boston seemed to somehow fit the old phrase “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Schumann’s experimental early Romantic piece is a little old-fashioned, Brahms’s trio is a model for Neo-Romantic writing, Trapani’s Quodlibet borrows a theme from Wagner, and Beethoven’s trio is just fun.
Schumann’s Three Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 73 begins without introduction with swirling eighth notes from the piano. Pianist Sergey Schepkin arrested us with tolling notes from the bass register beneath measured arpeggios. Gary Gorczyca’s cantabile clarinet tone floated above the piano and filled the hall. The two skillfully passed melodic fragments back and forth, creating ‘poetry and imagination’ in the music (as Schepkin described in his program notes). The agile performers coordinated their phrases carefully and heightened the drama by switching subito dynamics in split seconds.
The performance of Brahms’s Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, fully realized the beauty of the composer’s writing, striking me with the evolving role of the piano in the dynamic of the ensemble throughout the piece. In the first movement, the piano serves a supportive role, allowing Gorczyca and cellist Thomas Barth to project their skills. Gorczyca highlighted the stoic, resigned nature of these valedictory works, which the clarinet is uniquely suited to express, while Barth brought out the deep pathos, skillfully using vibrato to inflect with human-like singing. Schepkin gave fertile ground for the soloists to explore, intensifying their emotions without distracting. In a cheeky move on Brahms’s part, the piano introduces the closing theme, perhaps reminding us who is in command. Schepkin emphasized this moment subtly but just enough. In the second movement, Adagio, the performers moved us with lovely moments of rubato that suspend time. Schepkin continued his supportive role until the recapitulation when he unleashed a torrent of arpeggios beneath the main theme taken by the cello and clarinet in octaves. Here, Brahms made the interesting orchestrational choice to place this melody in the medium low register for both instruments (G string for cello, throat register for clarinet), what is naturally their weakest register. The movement ended with muffled cries of “Wow” from several audience members. The piano lead most of the third movement, Andantino grazioso. Barth played off the lively piano with jocular pizzicatos and lush double stops, and Gorczyca added jovial interjections throughout. The grand final movement proceeded with a more balanced orchestration, the three instrumentalists contributing equally to the impassioned conclusion.
Christopher Trapani composed his Quodlibet with Variations for cello and piano in 1999 for the Great Music in Provincetown series. The work begins with the theme, taken from the sailor’s air in Tristan and Isolde, stated by the cello in harmonics. Barth executed the devilishly difficult technique precisely and with superb phrasing. Barth and Schepkin collaborated well, carefully exchanging a recurring staccato motif while keeping the theme present. In an extremely effective use of extended piano technique, the final variation ends with the pianist strumming the strings. Quodlibet ends with a cluster chord beneath a soft note held by the cello. The movement seemed to linger in the air long after the players had stopped. Unfortunately, the hum of a heater or A/C unit in the building made their cutoff nearly inaudible. Though an early work composed in his freshman year at the New England Conservatory, Quodlibet displays Trapani’s developed tonal language and matured sense of structure.
Beethoven’s highly entertaining Clarinet Trio, Op. 11 begins with a thrilling chromatic melody taken in unison by all of the instrumentalists. The players brought the trio to life by shaping phrases around themes and used slight fluctuations of tempo to exaggerate these changing textures. They shaped the second movement around key changes to highlight the architecture. The retransition came through several obscure keys, including a surreal Neapolitan section which Barth performed with a ghostly, thin tone. After a glorious recapitulation filled with clarinet and cello, the movement ended softly. Whispers of “Phenomenal” filled the space between the piano’s downwards arpeggio that ended the second movement and the fiery upwards arpeggio that began the third. The piano dominated the concluding theme and variations movement. Gorczyca and Barth assumed supportive roles, interjecting with fragments of melodies or bits of Alberti bass without covering the piano. A shockingly chromatic cadenza led into the final variation. Even the performers smirked as the flourish of glissandi and arpeggios culminated in the final rip-roaring variation.