Chamber Music Society closes summer series with substantial finale
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s inaugural summer season built upon its solid opening concert with a well-shaped final program Wednesday night at Alice Tully Hall.
Shadowing the standard symphonic overture-concerto-symphony lineup the CMS musicians played Dvořák’s entertaining Bagatelles, Op. 47, for piano quartet, Schumann’s Violin Sonata in D minor, and Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor.
The Schumann and Brahms are forceful, deep, and expressive works—not the kind of substantial music one usually finds on a summer program. The season tempts programmers to cool, ease and refresh the mind and body. It has been interesting to see CMS eschew Telemann and Albinoni for the meat and potatoes of Romantic chamber masterpieces. With 1,000 people in the audience Wednesday, and the entire short series sold out, the experiment appears to be a substantive business success.
On the musical side, the quality of the performances has been consistently high and Wednesday’s final installment was terrific.
The Dvořák Bagatelles were something of a warm-up, offering appealing Bohemian lyricism, but the music didn’t reach far into the hall. Nor should it have—Dvořák composed the set as literal chamber music, meant to be played by friends privately. Pianist Wu Qian, violinists Alexander Sitkovetsky and Danbi Um, and cellist Laurence Lesser played the music too well, the weight and seriousness of their polished virtuosity overpowering a piece that should be a little rough, casual, amiable.
Sitkovetsky and Qian met Schumann as equals, with excellent results. The introduction was carefully shaped, building tension through exact phrasing and rhythms. Once into the main part of the music, Sitkovetsky and Qian maintained an agile, sympathetic dialogue, and carved a great deal of open space in the music. Even short silences in the music draw in the listener.
As does simple, direct expression, which was a feature of both the sonata and the Brahms Quintet. Set against Sitkovetsy’s etched attack and articulation, moments like the rise and fall of the lyrical, major key secondary theme in the opening movement, and the hushed Andante grew in meaning. The musicians drove through the repetitious finale with energy and concentration.
After intermission, Lesser and Um returned, joined by violist Richard O’Neill for Brahm’s big, grand quintet. As with the Schumann, the musicians had thought through the shape of the piece and the performance. They eschewed the commonplace muscular interpretation for a sinuous one with great horizontal movement.
The layering of and transitions to the music’s alternating moods and intensities were expertly modulated. Even the set piece of the opening movement was turned into one long, musically logical line, the music both saying something and going somewhere. After a bit of rhythmic opacity to begin the Andante, the group played with mesmerizing grace. Qian stood out—she drove the ensemble with a subtle power, never bashing away, building momentum through the sharp clarity of her piano playing.
In the finale, that momentum was considerable, and the mood changes were exhilarating: subdued, refined, then rhapsodic, everything balanced at what seemed the right amount of structural and emotional expression. By the time the musicians reached the coda, the music was hurtling along, and the final bars put a thrilling stamp on their exciting performance.