Dark rarities offer bright rewards in Chamber Music Society program

May 03, 2019

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performed Ernest Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1 Wednesday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Elliott Mandel

The turnout was sparser than usual Wednesday night at the Harris Theater for the final Chicago concert of the season for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The light audience was likely due to two factors: a program of mostly unfamiliar works, and the fact that Itzhak Perlman and Evgeny Kissin were performing the same night at the newly-reopened-for-business Symphony Center.

Too bad, because those who opted out of this program—aptly titled “Deeply Inspired”—missed one of the finest chamber concerts of the season, with a pair of rarities that proved genuine discoveries.

The sudden death of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1893 produced an outpouring of musical works honoring the beloved Russian composer—including the second Trio élégiaque by a conservatory student named Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, heard Wednesday night.

The quartet’s uber-Russian gloom is enhanced by the unusual scoring for violin, viola and two cellos—the likely logistical reason why this work doesn’t receive more outings. Yet the CMS performance showed Arensky’s quartet to be a richly melodic, deeply felt work, as played by violinist Danbi Um, violist Matthew Lipman and cellists Nicolas Canellakis and David Finckel.

The entire quartet breathes a valedictory quality, immediately manifest in the brooding introduction of the opening Moderato, which alternates rhapsodic lyricism with bursts of frantic agitation. The deep monastic cello tones of Canellakis and Finckel enhanced the music’s atmosphere, like an incense-laden Russian Orthodox church service.

The homage element is manifest in Arensky’s middle movement—a set of variations on one of Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Songs, Op. 54. The mercurial qualities were strongly put across by all the players, from quicksilver pizzicatos to virtuosic outbreaks, with Um contributing gleaming and expressive violin solos.

The finale alternates a Russian funeral hymn with the “Slava” coronation anthem (famously mined by Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov). The joyful expression of the latter segues into a whirlwind finale, attacked with blistering virtuosity by all to end this eloquent and thrilling performance.

As with so many excellent homegrown works of the 20th century, most of Ernest Bloch’s music has lost even its tenuous place in the repertoire, apart from a handful of pieces that draw upon his Jewish heritage, like Schelmo, Baal’ Shem and the Suite Hébraïque. 

Yet the prolific Swiss-American composer produced an imposing amount of inspired chamber music, including five string quartets, three solo cello suites and two piano quintets.

Bloch’s Piano Quintet No. 1, which closed the evening, turned out to be the evening’s major discovery. Cast in three movements, this big, consummately crafted 1923 work is an extraordinary achievement, and it’s hard to account for the neglect of this darkly powerful work.

The opening movement (“Agitato”) opens with an arching Romantic theme but abruptly shifts into a driving turbulence that dominates the movement. There are fleeting respites of uneasy lyricism, at times with tonality-bending phrase ends, but the tempestuous music always returns, played with biting aggression.

The middle movement (“Andante mistico”) offers scant relief with searching broken phrases that attempt to rise into lyrical yearning only to fall back into the abyss. The players were at their finest here, assaying the bleak introspection of this music with acute tonal sensitivity and unsparing concentration.

The final movement is equally tough stuff, led by a pounding piano motif. The unsettled music reaches a crescendo of roiling ferocity, put across with unnerving intensity by all five players. A flowing contrasting theme appears and ultimately gains ascendance over the violent bravura as the quintet ends in a hard-won, quiet and consolatory coda.

All praise to the Chamber Music Society for programming Bloch’s quintet and to the musicians who brought such impassioned and sizzling advocacy to this heady score— violinists Kristin Lee and Um, violist Lipman, cellist Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown. Let’s hope that CMS continues to bring more worthy American rarities to Chicago in future seasons.

The two works that opened the evening provided somewhat more mixed rewards. 

Written at age 21, Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach showed the composer’s skill at vocal writing from his earliest years. This setting for baritone and string quartet of Matthew Arnold’s celebrated poem would beget a flow of superb art songs from Barber that are among the finest of the 20th century.

Yunpeng Wang possesses an impressive dark-grained baritone, rich and evenly produced throughout his range. While Wang brought commitment and a dignified presence to Barber’s setting, the soloist’s rendering felt too generalized for such emotional music, needing a clearer line and more focused expression. More problematic, Wang’s cloudy diction left the English text indecipherable for long stretches of this eight-minute masterwork. No complaints about the sensitive, burnished support of the string quartet, with especially lovely viola playing by Chicago native Lipman.

In his brief life, Schubert never composed a work he would call a violin sonata, though he did write several shortish pieces for violin and piano, including three sonatinas. The Sonatina No. 3 in G minor is representative of these works, showing Schubert’s facility and rich fount of melody in four concise movements. 

Um and Brown proved admirable partners, in synch with the light charm and gentle contrasts of Schubert’s music. The Andante could easily be mistaken for a work by Mozart and both players conveyed the poised elegance as surely as the playful qualities of the Menuetto and the assertive energy of the finale. 

Brown’s keyboard work was especially idiomatic, bringing out the fantasia quality of the writing. One would like to hear this excellent pianist tackle Schubert’s late sonatas sometime.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday at Alice Tully Hall in New York. chambermusicsociety.org


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