Korngold Piano Quintet gleams in Chamber Music Society program
Strict chronological programming, as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center have done in their 45th season, is a tricky business. There is a risk of concerts becoming “one-note,” and the restriction leaves artists in something of a bind as far as coming up with creative, intelligent and challengingly contrasted programs.
“Destination America,” the title of CMS’s Sunday evening program imposed a didactic tone on a concert that needed none. The works presented, quite apart from making any revealing statement about America’s musical culture or influence, showcased four remarkable composers who, despite having close biographical dates, brought from their differing backgrounds and experiences a startlingly diverse range of musical expression.
Violinist Daniel Hope curated the program, and picked a virtuosic piece to close out the first half with Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata in D-major. Originally for flute and piano, the composer prepared this arrangement for the legendary David Oistrakh, and it has been cherished by violinists since. We hear both the lyricism and the chirping of a flute, but with the hard, gritty edge that Prokofiev often brought to his writing for the violin, as in the two concerti and the solo sonata. Hope played the sonata brightly, but not gently, while Wu Han kept an aptly heavy foot on the sustaining pedal, giving a fleshy, stewing feel to the music.
Charles Ives had a bite-sized role in the program, in his ephemeral Largo for violin, clarinet and piano. It is an intimate piece, but despite its brevity and small scale there is a charge running through its searching lines, underlined with tender grace by Hope, Han, and clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois.
De Guise-Langlois provided some sensational playing in the performance in Bartók’s Contrasts. The composer wrote the piece with Benny Goodman in mind, and the result is a spectacularly taxing, occasionally jazz-infused clarinet part. De Guise-Langlois tackled the piece with confidence, virtuosity, and sensitivity. She brought charming humor to the first movement’s limping theme every time it resurfaced, and was matched with tugging sorrow from Hope.
Eyes glued to each other, the trio were completely open to each other in the wandering, empty Pihenő, which featured limpid, spacious playing from pianist Gloria Chien. Hope switched violins for the scordatura opening of Sebes, the ferocious, spirited finale. Even in the midst of the movement’s fury, the players managed to find fierce joy in the music.
Korngold’s Piano Quintet in E major anchored the program, with the additions of violinist Yura Lee and violist Paul Neubauer. Anyone curmudgeonly enough to write off Korngold as a “mere” film scorer would surely have been convinced by this piece, rich and big-hearted in its writing, but complex and truthful in its expression.
The first movement opens with a grand sweep but quickly morphs into discrete individual lines, no less warm for their searching loneliness. The five musicians dug into the stomping finale with heft that transformed into shining energy, forcing rapt attention to the movement’s skittering figures.
The highlight, though, both of the quintet and of the whole program, was the second movement. Based on the composer’s own song Mond, so gehst du weider auf, it is a smoky, summery adagio, and the group’s rapt and focused playing conveyed the intense, aching emotion in Korngold’s lyricism. The music has at once the souped-up texture of Hollywood writing and the sincere individuality of Korngold’s contemporaries, combining free, modernist tonality with a romantic sonority. The strings pined their way through the emotive lines while Chien seemed to pluck the piano like a harp.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s next subscription concert will be on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Alice Tully Hall, featuring Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps. Chambermusicsociety.org