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Old Lyme — For an event as familiar as a Musical Masterworks concert, the popular Old Lyme chamber music series now in its third decade, the moments seem to be always invented anew. Saturday’s program had all the makings for a memorable event — and it did not disappoint.
The concert at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, to be repeated at 3 p.m. today, was unusual before the first note was played: It presented four works, rightly or wrongly, from the fringe of the repertoire, with the numeric oddity that three of them were published in 1798, 1898 and 1998. In performance, it was even better.
Three newcomers to the series — pianist Phillip Bush, violinist Arnaud Sussmann and violist David Harding — joined Masterworks artistic director and cellist Edward Arron. Bush and Sussmann were anchors to the ensembles — Bush spotlit in the Chausson and Sussmann in the Beethoven — and they projected a physical involvement with their instruments and fellow musicians that is one of the appeals of the concert experience. Harding played with a rich, warm timbre and surety of phrasing that was crucial again and again in the final quartet.
But the piece the audience will remember was the 1998 Piano Trio by the young American composer Pierre Jalbert.
Sussmann, Arron and Bush wove a gripping sound world for this two-movement trio. From the start, the string players created a sonic atmosphere with bowing effects, such as sul ponticello, with harmonics, with bending pitches and trilled glissandos. As the first movement came to rhythmic life, syncopated and bluesy at times, pianist Bush reached into the guts of his Steinway to play a throbbing bassline by plucking the strings.
The elegiac second movement, titled “Agnus Dei,” was the center of the evening. Minimalist with a purpose — composer Jalbert says its repetitions mimic the repetition of the Agnus Dei prayer — the strings climbed from a muted meditation to a visceral wail over Bush’s pulsing piano. This austere yet utterly gripping material was the emotional high point of the concert.
The concert opened with the Beethoven String Trio in C Minor, Opus 9, No. 3. Throughout, Sussmann was commanding, whether in the slashing stops of the opening allegro or the halting, reticent lyricism of the slow movement. The finale was full of Haydnesque wit, with Sussmann, head back, looking down his instrument to his fellow players, smiling like a Cheshire cat.
The second half of the concert was devoted to the Chausson Piano Quartet in A Major, Opus 30. This late Romantic pot-boiler steamed up the windows of the old church, with its pungent, rich harmonies and ecstatic (think César Franck) chromatic sequencing. It would have seemed too long were it not so sincerely sold by the musicians, Harding again and again voicing the key moments, Bush carrying an enormous weight in the complex score.