IN: Reviews

The Felicitous Three Plus One


Pianist Evren Ozel

In welcoming an enthusiastic full house to Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s concert on Sunday afternoon, Artistic Director Barry Shiffman let us know that he had been reluctant to program the familiar Mozart masterpiece, the Divertimento in E-Flat Major for String Trio, K. 563, until he found the “perfect players.” He certainly made the right booking decision when he engaged a trio sine nomine comprising stunning Stella Chen, first prize winner of the 2019 Queen Elizabeth competition; poetic cello competitor Brannon Cho, and the winsome violist Matthew Lipman, the possessor of a million-dollar smile and rarefied chops.  In the years they have known each other and played together, this threesome of undisputed stars, capable of larger-than-life sonorities on superb instruments, has also developed an extraordinary ensemble sense…like so-called golden-age partnerships. I say “so-called,” because we felt immersed in a new Edenic Age of Artistry for the 45 blissful minutes of top-drawer Mozart.

Surely this late-great Divertimento, which came into being just as Mozart was composing his last symphonies, constitutes an apotheosis of its form. And it’s even longer than the Jupiter, taking some 45 minutes. The transparency of the three-part design demands that every note count; there are no busy textures in which to hide or obfuscate. Over the six movements we observed vox humana expression from the three strings, perfection of ensemble tuning, spontaneous, oft-original, and ever-generous expression. Chen’s Strad produced shining alabaster colorations in a room which can trim upper voices. Cho’s early Italian cello bloomed marvelously, and Lipman’s modern viola threw sparks and brilliant shafts of amber light. They could trip a light minuet or fugue in a minor mode with deep intensity. Ever elegant shifts of mood characterized the morphing encounters. Working very much in a modern-romantic style, they produced gorgeous legato as well as pizzes and détaché that never sounded flippant. They tossed themes among themselves with artful backspin. The slow movements inhaled from deep reserves of longing, exhaling halcyon redolence. Fleet passages never lost focus, and waltzes possessed affectionately serpentine sway. At times the threesome could rise to orchestral sonorities; we never felt the need of a fourth voice, either for harmonic enrichment or power. Their come-hither stage presence and the inevitability of their flexible vibrato and the felicity of their slides inspire us to suggest adopting the name The Felicitous Three.

Guest pianist Evren Ozel made it four in a rip-roaring traversal of Fauré’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 45. If the earlier Mozart had embraced transparency and an aristocratic Golden Mien of execution, then the Fauré seemed to focus more on dramatic impulses and thickening textures. The strings opened the Allegro molto moderato in well-tuned if comparatively opaque unison statement of the Franckish theme over Ozel’s swirling, watery, accidental-laden arpeggios. The relentless questing impulses in the strings inundated us like irresistible tidal surges. Transformations of the theme gave soloistic opportunities for each player to produce some personal elegance; in addition to his ostinato-readiness, Ozel got to show off his singing tone and sweetly rolled chords.

The trio on January on Jan. 13, 2024 in Jordan Hall (courtesy Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts)

The Allegro molto begins pizzy in the strings with more rapid figurations in the piano. The effect was of an oceanic conveyance run deliberately amok, though limpid pools sometimes briefly emerged from the churning undertow. According to annotator Keith Horner:

“The Adagio… is a reverie on the gentle viola theme which opens this poetically melancholy movement.  “The viola would have to be invented for this Adagio if it did not already exist,” Fauré’s pupil Charles Koechlin said with a smile.  The opening rumbling in the piano is a rare example in Fauré’s music of art imitating life.  Here, he ‘almost involuntarily’ recreates a childhood memory of distant church bells from the town of Cadirac.”

To me, the piano’s opening bars resemble the melancholic second prelude of Chopin but there’s certainly no gainsaying the importance of the viola theme which Lippman inflected as if bateauing on a Sargasso Sea of tears. Everybody produced impressive riffs in the movement, which at times had the fluidity of a barcarolle. Tranquil, lusty, and tragic vapors diffused through the depths and shallows. Cho’s muted cello made a lustrous foundation for a late violin and viola duet. Ozel’s evanescent ppp arpeggio and rolled chords left us breathless.

A witches’ cauldron boiled in the Finale (Allegro molto) as the first-movement theme waxed more rhapsodical and insistent. Excesses of energy and compositional misdirection kept us hanging on to our safety harnesses. Ultimately Faure’s numberless arpeggios in the piano and unison overstatements from the strings became a bit much. We yearned for the explicit structure and elliptical smiles Saint-Saëns provided in his superlative Piano Quartet. But for the crowd, too much of the good thing is never enough.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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