Chamber Music Society brings spirited élan to Romantic program

Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 2:33 pm
Erno Dohnany's Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor was performed Friday by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Erno Dohnany’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor was performed Friday by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center may not always present the edgiest of programs, but their unique setup gives them a particular advantage. Like many other arts organizations and venues in New York, CMS brings prominent chamber ensembles to Alice Tully’s stage, but their seasonal roster allows them to present chamber music in its purest form with mixed groups of artists.

The Romantic program on Friday night opened with Dvořák’s Terzetto in C major, featuring violinists Kristin Lee and Arnaud Sussmann, and violist Paul Neubauer. From the first downbeat they played with intense, crackling warmth, caressing the music where it was lyrical, and bringing crisp, spirited energy to fast passages.

The ensemble was tight, as you’d expect from musicians of this caliber, and they were united in their musical ideas. They also played together in a way that is often overlooked: Their vibrato matched perfectly, magnifying the effect of whatever sound they tried to create.

A smile on Lee’s face as she gave the cue for the Scherzo boded well for what was to follow, and indeed the three played with wit and bite, contrasting the childlike playfulness of the scherzo sections with the wistful sentiment of the trio. Working their way through the finale, they kept clear the distinct character of each of the variations while still managing to form them into a continuous, powerful whole.

For Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 2, Sussmann returned, accompanied by pianist Juho Pohjonen and cellist David Finckel. CMS is a labor of love for Finckel and his wife, the pianist Wu Han, who serve as co-directors of the Society and frequently perform in its programs. As ever, he proved himself on Friday a sensitive and technically proficient musician, though his sound felt oddly muted at times, especially on the lower strings.

The first movement, marked “Sehr lebhaft” (“very lively”) was more unsure than it might have been. There was conviction in the trio’s playing, but their musical ideas were not clearly defined, and the logic of the piece was hard to follow.

Pohjonen, sporting an appropriately Schumannesque haircut, was poetic at the keyboard, nowhere more so than in the second movement, where he created a beautiful, rolling backdrop for the strings. Finckel answered, his reserve serving him well as he produced a mellow and modest sound, while Sussmann was clean but hard-edged.

The third movement begins with a limping figure in the piano that suggests a scherzo might be coming, but the doleful playing of the strings creates more pathos than humor. Sussmann found his voice in the finale, playing with the heroic vigor of a lead tenor.

All five musicians were mustered for the evening’s final work, Ernő Donhányi’s Piano Quintet No. 1 in C minor. The Quintet was completed when the composer was only eighteen, and it exhibits a remarkable mixture of youthful vigor and precocious maturity. The opening allegro started with stormy rumbling in the piano set against a thick mesh in the strings, some of the richest playing of the night. All five voices retained fierce independence, but Sussmann, once again sitting first violin, guided them with a sure hand.

There was flair and zest in the capricious scherzo, which was followed by a searching, deep-voiced solo from Neubauer to begin the adagio. Much of this movement has a cozy feel to it, and the strings managed some extraordinarily intimate playing, but when the piano part fleshed out towards the end, Pohjonen leaned into it as though it were a concerto.

Visible throughout the concert was the collegial approach of these musicians, exchanging glances and smiles with each other as they engaged in real, spontaneous musicality. Their performance of the finale was full of joy, tapping once more into their playful side, and nailing the false ending, which drew a smattering of applause, followed by some sheepish laughter.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will present music by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Arensky, and Taneyev March 11.

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