From New Haven to Vienna, Chamber Music Society program proves delightful

Mon Oct 30, 2017 at 12:39 pm
The String Quartet No. 1 of Charles Ives (left) was performed at the the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert on Sunday.

The String Quartet No. 1 of Charles Ives (left) was performed at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concert on Sunday.

After church let out, the subject turned to earthly love Sunday in a program by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center that was a delight from start to finish. 

The Alice Tully Hall audience had to sit up in its pew for Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 1, which the 22-year-old Yale student and aspiring composer assembled from music he wrote for his church job, but after that all they needed was love in richly expressive music by Bernstein, Webern and Brahms.

The ingeniously interlocking program featured an all-American first half and an all-Viennese finish; two pairings of string quartets with works for singers and piano four hands; and one piece, Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles,that had been commissioned as a companion to another, Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52, which concluded the concert.

A Hamburg connection ran through the program as well, the north German city being the birthplace not only of Brahms but of the mellow-toned concert grand piano onstage, manufactured by Steinway’s Hamburg branch. And a lifelong Hamburger, the esteemed pianist and American-music specialist Sebastian Knauer, joined CMS regular Anne-Marie McDermott on the piano bench (actually, two stools) in his first appearance with the Society. 

Another first was logged by the Escher String Quartet, unveiling its new roster featuring Danbi Um, whose second violin was a strong presence in both the Ives and Webern’s Langsamer Satz. Her appointment marks another successful placement out of CMS Two, the Society’s development league for promising young chamber players.

The Escher sounded as though it had been playing together for years as it spun out the opening fugue of the Ives, then dug into the organ-like sonorities of the three following movements. Composed in a more familiar tonal idiom than this composer’s more radical later works, the piece seasoned its familiar hymn themes with just enough harmonic and metrical spice to get him in trouble with the congregation of Center Church in New Haven. (It didn’t take much.)  One was reminded mainly of the robust chamber music of New England Romantics such as Chadwick, Foote, and Ives’ teacher at Yale, Horatio Parker. 

In contrast, a decidedly anti-Romantic mood swept in amid the ambiguities and ironies of Arias and Barcarolles,a seven-song cycle that was Bernstein’s last substantial composition before his death in 1990. Not quite taking literally the score’s instruction to sing without expression, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford and baritone Nathan Gunn gave cool yet vocally superb renditions of texts by the composer (or in one case by his mother Jennie), musing about love or conversing colloquially. Gunn’s voice in particular impressed with its combination of powerful focus and depth.

Bernstein assigned most of the music’s rage and sentiment to the pianists, who often raised a ruckus when the singers were at their coolest. This cognitive dissonance kept the musical dissonances from running off the rails emotionally. On the other hand, the central song “Greeting,” about newborn babies, was saved from sentimentality by mezzo Mumford’s steady declamation and pianist Knauer’s soft, luminous accompaniment. The closing Nachspiel (Postlude), a delicately voiced piano solo by Knauer, was set aglow by soft humming from the singers. 

After intermission, it was back to the classroom for another student work that didn‘t sound like one. Under Schoenberg’s tutelage, Anton Webern’s road to his intensely concentrated mature style led through the grandeurs of Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss, producing dozens of meritorious works that failed to earn the longed-for designation “Opus One.”  One of these for string quartet, known simply as Langsamer Satz or Slow Movement, is so irresistibly small-r romantic and autobiographical that it has become a repertoire staple, opus number or no opus number.

From its urgent, not-so-langsam opening bars to the evaporating pianissimo of its close, the Escher players’ performance Sunday did justice to a youthful work that seemed to be trying to say everything in one go. The big statements had body and shape, and when the music thinned out to tender counterpoint the filaments of sound twined gracefully together.

Cool was restored as the cast of the Bernstein piece was augmented by soprano Susanna Phillips and tenor Nicholas Phan for the program’s finale, Brahms’s often-rueful but tuneful garland of 18 waltzes looking at love from every angle. The four voices sounded distinctive yet well-matched, a sturdy ensemble that phrased elegantly and managed some variation in timbre according to the mood of the song. Phan’s ringing tenor stuck out a bit here and there, but that’s an occupational hazard of tenors.

Most of the waltzes were for all four singers, but the occasional solo or duet provided a memorable moment, such as soprano Phillips’s graceful melancholy in “Wohl schön bewandt war es vorehe,” or Mumford’s duet with her in celestial thirds in “Vögelein durchrauscht die Luft.”

Pianists McDermott and Kraus played vividly, the latter’s singing tone in the treble complementing the actual singers. In fact, with that much vocal power up front, the players could have pushed their buttery Hamburg Steinway a good deal harder, to put it in the middle of the action instead of way in the back.

The next program of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will be the Orion Quartet performing music of Haydn, 7:30 p.m. Friday.; (212) 875-5788.

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