Kodaly, Zhou Long premiere provide the highlights in Chamber Music Society program
Zhou Long certainly has a solid pedigree as a composer, with grants from all the right foundations and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize under his belt for his first opera, Madame White Snake. Long’s Tales from the Nine Bells, which received its U.S. premiere from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center on Tuesday, showed these are more than just empty honors, as his new work vividly displays his distinctive and compelling musical language.
A co-commission for CMS and Wigmore Hall, Nine Bells calls for clarinet (David Shifrin), violin (Benjamin Beilman), viola (Paul Neubauer), and piano (Inon Barnatan). The one-movement work plays with and explores the interplay of two contrasting musical ideas: the “Mighty Bells,” represented by striking the lowest strings of the piano, and “Frost Bells,” portrayed by plucking in the piano’s upper register.
Tales from the Nine Bells is stunningly atmospheric, but for a work with “Tales” in its title it has surprisingly little sense of narrative flow. The piano part is mostly gestural—aside from the distant crashes and tinkling of the bells, there are arpeggiated swells suggesting wind and snow, but the piano contributes to the piece without really developing a nuanced voice. The same is largely true of the string parts, occasionally bringing traditional Chinese sonorities into a Western instrumentation, but for the most part providing suggestive sound effects.
Only the clarinet part has discernible character behind it, occasionally wandering in with jazzy licks played with fine wit by Shifrin. Together, the instruments’ quirky figurations and judicious use of extended technique create a fascinating sound that shifts and enchants. A listener looking for greater emotional complexity, however, may well be disappointed.
In Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No. 2, Shifrin was less convincing, taking a reserved approach to a very sentimental piece. He and Barnatan seemed to be of two minds about how to approach the music—hardly an ideal situation for chamber performance. Shifrin’s playing was cool, and in the first movement even felt technically encumbered here and there. By contrast, Barnatan’s playing was big-hearted, bringing out the swinging moods that make Brahms the intensely expressive composer that he is. The two following movements suffered from the same disunion—caution on the one hand, and passion on the other. There was fine musicality from both players, but their collaboration did not really feel like a unified effort.
Some of the most virtuosic playing of the evening came in Kodàly’s Duo for Violin and Cello. It is a remarkable piece, with a true sense of dialogue between two very different voices. The young violinist Benjamin Beilman and the veteran cellist Torleif Thedéen gave a tremendously thoughtful account of the work, allowing its cerebral and emotional elements to coexist. The first movement has a sort of strolling quality, not rushing at a furious pace, but ever in motion, and always forward. The two players sang colorfully through their instruments, expressive and invested, and unafraid to dig in.
The Adagio was intensely probing, often nearly overcome by a feeling of ponderous emotional weight with no escape, save in the fleeting glimpses of wide, open space. The mad, insistent pleading of the third movement’s maestoso opening gave way in the presto to frightening conviction that nevertheless had a hint of whimsy about it.
Beilman, Thedéen, and Barnatan made a tight collaboration in Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 3 to close the program, communicating closely and giving generously to each other. Much of the piece has a troubled, stormily brooding quality, but the players never lost the feeling of grace that also runs through the music. An uneven approach to vibrato from the two string players apart, this was a beautifully and carefully colored performance, especially affecting in the gentle pining of the second movement.
The next CMS concert will offer music of Mendelssohn and Brahms May 16 and 18. chambermusicsociety.org.