Diversity, classical style, makes for enjoyable CMS summer concert

Wed Jul 10, 2024 at 1:53 pm
Music of Mozart, Brahms, Puccini and Dvořák were performed by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Tuesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Credit: Cherylynn Tsushima

Multicultural offerings may be the rule this summer at Lincoln Center, but dead white male composers had their day Tuesday night in Alice Tully Hall, as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center opened its summer season with lively performances of music for strings by Dvořák, Puccini, Mozart and Brahms.

Wait—Puccini?  Chamber music?  Yes, early in his career, before his music bestrode opera stages everywhere, the Italian master composed a touching elegy for string quartet, Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums). Its inclusion in this program, along with tuneful rarities and arrangements by Dvořák and Mozart, suggested at least a summertime loosening of the tie by Lincoln Center’s purveyors of chamber masterpieces.

Only the last item of the evening, Brahms’s Quintet in G major, Op. 111, brought thoughts of the high seriousness characteristic of CMS, and even this was seriousness with a smiling face. Brahms was contemplating retirement as he composed it, and perhaps the divine comedy of Beethoven’s last quartet, Op. 135, was on his mind.

Playing with impeccable ensemble and energy, the mixed cast of veteran and younger players achieved a seamless meeting of the minds throughout the evening. Two longtime CMS artists, cellist David Finckel and violist Paul Neubauer, joined forces with three graduates of the Society’s Bowers Program for emerging artists, violinists Kristin Lee and Chad Hoopes and violist Matthew Lipman. Following CMS’s egalitarian custom, the two violinists and two violists swapped first and second chairs from work to work.

Neubauer’s resonant viola was the miniature anchor for Dvořák’s Drobnosti (Miniatures) for Two Violins and Viola, Op. 75a, the intimate piece that opened the program. Hoopes and Lee intertwined their violins in the songful Cavatina, then kicked up their heels in the folk-style Capriccio. The little suite coasted to a gentle close with a long-breathed, harmonically venturesome Romanza and an attenuated Elegia full of pauses.

Another elegy followed immediately, Puccini’s Crisantomi, named for flowers associated with mourning. The addition of Finckel’s cello both widened the tonal horizon and established the depths from which Lipman’s viola and the two violins climbed in expressive, Wagnerian lines. Puccini evidently thought this music was too good not to re-use before a wider public, for it turns up later in the tragic last act of Manon Lescaut, the composer’s first hit in the opera house.

Mozart loved playing the viola and hearing chamber music from the inside out, so to speak. In his mature years he composed five original works for string quintet with two violas and also arranged his Serenade in C minor for Winds, K. 406, for that medium. Tuesday’s performance of that arrangement was, initially at least, polished but a little polite for Mozart in his C minor mood; the cut-and-thrust gained by moving this dramatic music from winds to strings was only partly realized.

Andante literally means “going,” and the ensemble kept this second movement on the move, tuneful and sonorous, but not lingering long over phrases. No doubt Haydn’s example of fun with learned composing techniques inspired the spirited Menuetto “in canone,” tossing the theme from part to part and reversing it in the trio. This too hummed along in performance, with few sharp edges. Similarly, the smooth progress of the theme-and-variations finale, polished as it was, bypassed opportunities for mood-painting in the variations.

Horticultural metaphor returned in Dvořák’s Cypresses (Echo of Songs) for string quartet. Although cypresses are also associated with mourning, the “echo” in this case was of love songs Dvořák had written two decades before arranging twelve of them for quartet. Tuesday’s selection began with the dramatic No. 12, “You ask why my songs,” whose four elegantly coordinated voices bore no sign of their singer-and-piano origin.

No. 4, “O our love will not bloom into that long wished-for happiness,” paradoxically bloomed into spacious textures, whether in urgent forte or disconsolate pianissimo. The night was full of chattering sounds in No. 11, “Nature is held in light sleep,” before fading to a ruminative diminuendo.

The exact reverse of that dwindling nocturne was the opening of Brahms’s quintet, with Finckel’s cello bounding upward through the glare of coruscating higher strings. This energetic opening led to rushing the second theme a bit, but the first movement’s many moods shone through clearly.

Brahms’s love of deep sonorities expressed itself in inspired writing for violas and cello at the opening of the Adagio, set off later by the slender tones of the violins. All joined in a passionate outburst at mid-movement, before separating into delicate dialogues, then descending back into low registers.

Instead of the customary fast scherzo, Brahms substituted a kind of valse triste, full of hesitations, finding the pulse and losing it again, its twists and turns providing expressive corners that Tuesday’s ensemble took full advantage of. “Lively but not too fast” is the translation of the composer’s tempo marking on the finale, and the ensemble realized both halves of that instruction admirably. The Hungarian-flavored twisting lines made exciting counterpoint, snatches of melody soared above it all, and the revved-up coda put an exclamation point on what was, in its own way, a highly diverse summer evening at Lincoln Center.

CMS’s Summer Evenings series continues with the Escher String Quartet and pianist Anna Geniushene performing works of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms, 5 p.m. Saturday at Alice Tully Hall. chambermusicsociety.org

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