Chamber Music Society travels light and heavy in Prokofiev, Lyapunov
Although the composing careers of Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Mikhaylovich Lyapunov overlapped by a couple of decades, the two pieces performedThursday night by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in the Center’s Rose Studio sounded as though they had been composed in different centuries.
Prokofiev (1891-1953) was every inch the sleek modernist in his Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56, composed in 1932, with piquant dissonances enlivening a very up-to-date neoclassical design.
But the program’s center of gravity, in every sense of the word, was the Sextet for Piano and Strings, Op. 63, by Lyapunov (1859-1924), composed in 1915 and revised in 1921, which lumbered through the small performance space in full armor, like the overgrown love child of Johannes Brahms and Alexander Borodin.
It was Les Six vs. The Mighty Five as the Russia-bound Prokofiev bid adieu to his adopted city of Paris with a Gallic valentine, while the pianist-composer Lyapunov, in the only piece of chamber music he ever wrote, made a Big Statement about his Russian heritage just prior to fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution for, where else, Paris.
In the sonata, violinists Chad Hoopes and Paul Huang interacted smartly, differentiating their tones when the musical dialogue called for it (as in the piece’s opening bars) and merging at other times to create a “one big violin” effect.
In the concise first movement, flowing cantabile lines rubbed together to produce expressive dissonances, sensitively explored by the two violinists. The rather somber mood was dispelled by a sassy Scherzo, in which Hoopes and Huang threw a whole bag of violin tricks at the listener, from slashing Herrmann-esque “Psycho” chords to medieval-style hocketing (a fast passage divided between the two players in rapid alternation).
In further contrast, a movement headed Commodo, quasi Allegretto (comfortable, like a moderately fast movement) found each player taking a turn spinning out a long, tender melody and then wafting it skyward, until a passage in ghostly harmonics signaled the movement’s close.
In the folksy finale, Hoopes and Huang fiddled exuberantly but deftly with no stepping on toes in this violinistic do-si-do. In a piece for two of the same instrument, tail-chasing canons are practically a must, and they swarmed thick here, especially in the hectic coda. The violinists’ lively, richly characterized performance brought warm applause.
After a short pause to add several chairs and stands, a whole different sound filled the room. For whatever reason–maybe because he expected the piece to be played in Yankee Stadium—Lyapunov augmented the traditional piano quintet, already a quasi-orchestral ensemble, with a double bass.
That, plus a fondness for the instruments’ lower registers and a tendency to have them all play all the time, made for a murky sonority that grew oppressive in the small room, especially amid the Tchaikovsky-like sequences and crescendos of the earnest first movement.
The string players—violinists Huang and Hoopes, violist Matthew Lipman, cellist Dmitri Atapine and bassist Joseph Conyers—performed with crisp ensemble and gusto, but mostly didn’t figure out how to scale the sound to the space and make it somewhat transparent. At least Conyers played the bass with enough discretion to avoid setting off the building’s earthquake alarm.
For her part, pianist Anne-Marie McDermott seemed to be forcing the tone of her Hamburg Steinway in an effort to cut through the opaque wall of strings. While her ability to get around in a long, formidable score was truly impressive, she wasn’t able to offer her colleagues much in the way of tone color or imaginative characterization to play off of.
Still, the Scherzo had its moments—not so much the leggiero main section, which wasn’t, but the chromatic fugato of the trio, which had a Schumannesque charm to it. Muted strings, lush harmony and soaring melody gave a full measure of Russian sensuality, à la Borodin or Rachmaninoff, to the ensuing Nocturne.
Curiously, this disciple of Balakirev and the Russian nationalist school seemed again to take Brahms as the model for the finale, with its galloping theme subjected to immediate and constant development—and quite skillfully, too. The movement’s momentum helped keep it interesting, although as the loudness and thickness began to pile up again one wished the players would pull back occasionally and let the music breathe.
At the Sextet’s noisy wrap-up, there were many grins and sidewise glances onstage, as if to say “We made it” or “This piece is a hoot,” or maybe both. The audience applauded in admiration, calling the players back to the stage once, but not a second time.
The next performance of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will be works of Leclair, Françaix, Ravel and Chausson, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Alice Tully Hall. chambermusicsociety.org; 212-875-5788.