Chamber Music Society probes music of Adès and Britten
Programmed with an intimate audience in mind, the Chamber Music Society’s “Art of the Recital” series in the Rose Studio tends to offer chances to hear more non-standard rep than do the bigger recital venues. Thursday night’s installment was a strong concert of music all from the last half-century, as cellist Colin Carr and pianist Thomas Sauer paired and contrasted the music of Benjamin Britten and Thomas Adès.
The evening’s first item was also its most opaque. Benjamin Britten’s Cello Sonata in C major, though often intriguing, largely shies away from the emotional depths that the composer explored in his greatest works. The opening “Dialogo” never felt focused, wandering from thought to thought without ever alighting on a conclusion. If it was indeed a dialogue, its subject was hard to grasp.
The character of the Scherzo was altogether clearer, a playful, endearing trick with a side of impish mischief. Carr occasionally sounded challenged when playing up high, but he brought a gruff honesty to his playing, particularly in the final two movements. Sauer was more assertive, playing with superb dynamic freedom and communicating intense emotions.
Though his aesthetic is somewhat different, Adès shares Britten’s penchant for deep emotion, tending towards seriousness. Introducing the three-movement sonata Traced Overhead, for solo piano, Sauer proposed the alternate title of “Three studies in ethereality.” While that might sell short the integrity of the piece, he is exactly on the money in sonic terms. The music is floating and free, calling for heavy use of the sustaining pedal to maintain its otherworldly flow. The gossamer lines are not as clear as in much of the composer’s other work, but the effect is strong, lulling the listener into a glassy trance.
Thursday’s most daunting item, and its most riveting, was Britten’s third Suite for Solo Cello. In its twenty-five minutes the piece traverses vast emotional terrain and shows many sides of the composer’s talents, from his haunting melodic lines to his crisp energy. It begins with soft keening, pensive wailing in the Introduzione, moving into a vigorous Marcia that, in Carr’s interpretation, was more of a gallop. Gentle relief comes in the gorgeous Barcarola, followed by what felt like two sides of one troubled personality as the Dialogo pitted wistful plucked chords against insistent, aggressive outbursts with the bow.
The closing Passacaglia, nearly the length of all the eight preceding episodes together, is strongly reminiscent of the Chaconne from Bach’s D-minor Violin Partita, a monumental, searching, passionate culmination of a larger emotional journey. This is Britten at his most profound, summoning deep, dark thoughts through aching melody, and Carr’s realization was profoundly moving.
The final item, Lieux retrouvés for Cello and Piano, was quintessential Adès, a wonderfully evocative tone painting built around strong melodies. The shimmering ripples of “Les eaux” are brilliantly balanced by the playful trudge of “La montagne,” where the two instruments pursue associated ideas but at different paces, slightly disorienting but constantly intriguing the listener.
“Les champs” is stunningly placid, portraying sighs and gentle breezes over broad, open space. Adès here asks the cello to sing absurdly high up in the treble range, a challenge that Carr met skillfully as he found real lyricism at the extreme end of the fingerboard, supported by the crisp, cool night air evoked by Sauer at the piano. One last joke brings the piece to an end: “La ville,” is exactly what its humorous subtitle, “cancan macabre,” suggests—a rough, playfully dissonant take on Offenbach’s “Infernal Galop,” punctuated by a few knives coming through the shower curtain.