The Rockport Chamber Music Festival ended its opening weekend 3-0, having sold-out three concerts in as many days. Sunday’s concert featured an informal group of players serenading the full house with Schumann’s Piano Quartet and Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet. Gilles Vonsattel (piano), Andrew Wan (violin), Darry Shiffman (viola), and Desmond Hoebig (cello) played throughout, with Kebra-Seyoun Charles (double bass) joining for the quintet. As they played, they communicated silently, with short moments of eye contact and frequent smirks saying more than words could.
In Schubert’s quintet, the string players blended their tones to create a beautiful, rich texture in homophonic passages, but each could also emerge when Schubert scattered the group into swirling torrents of overlapping lines and arpeggios. The group managed these transitions without disruption, altering the textures in a fraction of a beat. Performances like this remind one of Schubert’s wit and charm and not just his lovely melodic lines. Double bassist Kebra-Seyoun Charles seemingly directed the shaping of these passages with wonderfully resonant tone. With incredible pizz and gentle swells, the bassist’s enrapturing sound solidly grounded the rest of the musicians and inspired them to take more risks than I think they would have otherwise. Shiffman and Hoebig (viola and cello) shared many moments playing off of each other or playing together, energizing the middle texture of the ensemble. Wan (violin) took advantage of the lively accompaniment to sing out above the ensemble with flashy lines and brilliant melodies. Pianist Gilles Vonsattel echoed all of these, enhancing the bass with his left hand and playing some of the most musical trills I’ve heard with his right. More than performing music, this is what ‘music making’ really means.
Schumann’s quartet, while heavier than the Schubert, was no less enjoyable. The scherzo featured the most entertaining gestures, with dramatic flips of the bow at cut offs which elicited a few chuckles from the audience. The first movement’s glacial opening gave way to the main theme’s flourish of arpeggios with the energy of a firecracker. The movement’s melodies seemed to float along as gently as the yacht behind the performers while the accompaniment moved relentlessly, like those endless wavelets in the bay.
Shiffman dedicated the slow movement of Schumann’s quartet to Geoff Nuttall, a founding member of the St. Lawrence Quartet who died last fall. Most of those onstage had played the Schumann’s quartet with him. The movement, marked Andante cantabile, moved us most deeply. They played the A section that opens and closes the movement with a wistful agony, manifested in the excruciating portamenti that adorned the major seventh leaps in the melody. As heart wrenching as this was, their interpretation of Schumann’s countermelodies (often canonical echoes of the melody) elevated the movement to the sublime. The middle section, in a tender G-flat major, felt like a eulogy as the strings and piano played in declamatory unison. Most audience members listened with their eyes closed, taking it in as a deep meditation on loss and consolation. Hoebig’s low B-flat (Schumann’s quirky scordatura tuning lowered the cello’s low C string to a B-flat) ended the movement on a profound note. The note, lower than any other in the piece, resounded in our ears like a great bell.