IN: Reviews

BCMS Hyper-Expresses


Boston Chamber Music Society Artistic Director Marcus Thompson may have sat out the Society’s concert at Jordan Hall last Sunday, but his good work went fully on display in the bright green program insert of next season’s plans. The series comprises a rewarding-looking blend of 11 concerts—all in Sanders. [Brochure HERE.] And while you are in the mood for clicking, consider reading Rebecca Marchand’s important essays on the offerings [HERE].

Pianists Benjamin Hochman, and Max Levinson delivered a brilliant account of Debussy’s En blanc et noir, reveling in the cascades through forests of ivory and ebony, and never getting lost in the underbrush. Punchy notes lined up perfectly and arpeggios intertwined with carefree but accurate abandon.  Avec emportement roiled in rhapsodic waters, glowing with radiance and wit. The quick, scary opening of Lent. Sombre, martial and funereal at first, becomes consoling as a bright chorale of longing intercedes—somber but with a rhythmic backbone. The motoric portions sounded clear but never notey; the players embraced the Luther hymn Ein’ feste Burg with joyful pathos. Appropriately resorting to the una corda at times, Hochman and Levinson completely eschewed the competitive banginess that can wear out the welcome of this repertoire. Scherzando, licensed the teams to engage in winning pixie noodling as abstractions and cross-rhythms built meaning. Contrasts of texture and character morphed by with precision as ensemble never wavered. We imagined the expiring heart of Till Eulenspiegel toward the end of this polished and affectionate traversal.

Marchand writes of Paul Schoenfield’s Café Music (1986) for piano trio:

Paul Schoenfield retired from the composition faculty at University of Michigan in 2021 and has continued to be a dedicated Talmudic scholar as well as a self-described amateur mathematician. He studied piano with Rudolf Serkin in Vermont and composition with Robert Muczynski at University of Arizona, where Schoenfield earned a DMA in 1970.

The concept for Café Music came to Schoenfield when he was sitting in one night for the pianist of the house trio at Murray’s Restaurant in Minneapolis. Struck by the panoply of styles in the ensemble’s setlist, he aimed to “write a kind of high-class dinner music—music which could be played at a restaurant, but might also (just barely) find its way into a concert hall.” Indeed, the work is injected with Viennese classicism alongside American popular styles including those heard in Hollywood and on Broadway, sounds of hot club-style jazz out of Paris in the 1930s, as well as Jewish folk music.

Violinist Jennifer Frautschi cavorting like a Grappelli, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan doing his Charles Mingus thing (an octave higher), and pianist Levinson presiding like a Fats Waller manque, gave a deliciously over-the-top interpretation, evoking for me a chamber version of the Comedian Harmonists or the foxtrot epidemic in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Oyster Princess.” Be it tango, rag or skat, Schoenfeld’s exuberance sounded like Bolcom unchained. Levinson began the middle movement Rubato. Andante moderato as a slow rag on Chassidic impressions. Very bluesy violin and cello contributions poured out with almost unbearable emotion ending with slides evoking blues notes in “Bess, You is my woman” on the violin and “comin’ home” on the cello. Astor Piazzolla seemed present for the fast and explosive Presto. Schoenfeld gave the three players great equality in the wild, charging, Cab Calloway humor and the players responded with irresistible verve.

One might posit Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire as the hyper destination on a path that began with the first dramatically cohesive song cycle, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte. Other forks in the well-traveled path: melodramas by Lizst such as Lenore, Richard Strauss’s extended melodrama Enoch Arden (1897)  (Tennyson), and Schoenberg’s own hyper-romantic Verklärte Nacht of 1899 (though the Dehmel poems are  not spoken or sung), String Quartet No. 2 (1907) with an agonizing high soprano segment, and Erwartung (1909) sung to an emotionally charged libretto by Marie Pappenheim.

(Chung Chen photo)

Pierrot Lunaire’s three-times-seven numbers, set to Otto Erich Hartleben’s German translations of French poems by Émile Alber Kayenberg (pen name Albert Giroud) depict some bloody lunacy on the parts of commedia dell’arte characters. This is not your grandmother’s melodrama, nor is it an etude on tone row theories. To begin with, Schoenberg’s atonal language is ripe with hyperexpression, word painting, and total theatricality. Not only does Schoenberg blacken the score with accidentals, he also litters the staves with almost continuous indications relating to dynamics, tempos, colorations, and pauses. We witnessed not a single unconsidered or inexpressive instant in the 35 minutes.

Hochman took the fiendish piano part securely hand, dispatching it with such sovereign ease that he could fully engage with the plot, as it were. Raman Ramakrishnan spanned huge and weird rolled chords on the cello and grinned with pleasure at his accomplishments. Whether clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, or violinist Frautschi, were shining moonbeams, occluding visions with blood, or dancing with strewn blossoms, they supplied color, fire, mystery, and humor. The perfection of instrumental ensemble served to elevate soprano Lucy Shelton on her raised throne.

Few understand the requirements of Sprechstimme as well as Shelton [Schoenberg’s foreword[HERE]; it’s nothing like Rex Harrison talking through the songs in My Fair Lady. Schoenberg suggested approximate adherence to pitch and demanded strict adherence to duration, and the occasional dotted half notes require sustained tone. Only a very few times does the composer indicate duration without pitch. Shelton’s usually audible, un-miked flight path spanned more than two octaves, and her variety of coloration astonished. She belted a fff glissando across a 14th, plus, she expressed with face and gesture like a 19th-century Lieder singer in Elrkönig even when erupting in passing strange and rarely very lyrical stanzas. We are glad she ignored the composer’s admonition to avoid over interpreting. The last words, O alter Du——-ft—aus ——-rchenzeit (O redolence from fairytales) are still hanging in the air.

 Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

Below one can observe some varieties of Sprechstimme requirements referenced in the text:

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