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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Concert Review: Outside it May Be Raining...

Beating the heat with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Partners at work: David Finckel and Wu Han.
Photo from the artists' website.
Most summer music festivals take place under hot tents or purpose-built structures open to the elements. Neither are conducive to good music-making, although the combination of grassy swards, majestic trees and a good bottle of cab. franc makes up for any unpleasantness. The Chamber Music Society's summer series, which gave the second of three concerts on Wednesday night, offers a comfortable alternative: the air-conditioned acoustic excellence of Alice Tully Hall.

This concert featured CMS music directors (and married partners) David Finckel and Wu Han, with guest violinist and regular collaborator Arnaud Sussmann. They offered a menu of impeccably constructed chamber works by Brahms, Dvořák and Mendelssohn, composers that are exemplars among the Romantic composers of the 19th century. All three pieces featured Ms. Wu playing piano, first with Mr. Finckel's cello, then with Mr. Sussmann's violin.

There was a small hiccough in the first movement of the Brahms. Mr. Finckel was playing the second statement of the opening theme, a deep and majestic musical idea that utilezes the lowest string of the cello and the instrument's darkest tones, when his bow hiccoughed, and the note became a jarring off-key note.  He stopped. Wu Han stopped. And he said "that's what you get in this kind of humidity." They started the piece over from the top, playing the beginning of the sonata a little faster to get back to where the error had occurred.

Brahms is often mis-characterized as a conservative voice in 19th cntury music. But close examination of this sonata shows a fearlessly inventive composer who was able to express the same level of coherent musical thought whether he was writing for two players or for a full symphony orchestra. This Cello Sonata in E minor has that complexity of thought, in its establishment of contrasting lines for the two instruments (the cello leading downward, the piano coursing up the keyboard) in the expansive opening movement or the hushed poetry of the central Andante.

The finale allowed these two remarkable musical partners the opportunity to play, leaping into the set of variations and complex turns of musical phrase with vigor. It is here that the complex architecture of this sonata reveals itself, as the opening idea comes back to reveal itself in the harmonic writing. Sure, this work follows the standard sonata form in its structure, but it also shows Brahms pushing and stretching that form as far as it could go without breaking its overall shape.

Antonín Dvořák wrote the Sonatina for Violin and Piano as a piece for his children, during his two-year sojurn in New York teaching music. (This is the same fruitful period that produced the "American" Quartet and the Symphony No. 9 ("From the New World"). It is a charming work, combining Dvorak's own fondness for folk music with some of the American influences that crept into the composer's style. The violin alternates between rustic "American" themse and the Czech rhythm that pervades this composer's movement, over four compact yet inventive movements.

Mr. Sussmann took the lead here, engaging with Ms. Wu's piano as they worked together to solve the mysteries of the complicated first movement. This is a quirky sonata form, a brilliant double game between the two instruments that eventually culminates in sound musical agreement. The slow movement followed, a genial Andante with a graceful middle section. It yielded to a fiery but good natured scherzo. That was the set-up for a helter-skelter final movement, played at speed with prodigious grace and technique from these two artists.

The three musicians came together for the concert-ending Mendelssohn. This was his Piano Trio No. 2, one of the composer's last creations for chamber ensemble and redolent with the rich melodicism and expert craftsmanship that characterizes all of that composer's brought the three players together for Mendelssohn's second piano trio, one of that composer's late crowning achievements. These four movements were played with style, precision and grace, with the trio spinning intricate structures of sound that climaxed in a final movement of exuberant invention. And yes, there was wine afterwards.

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