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Maybe there's something to be said for our winter confinement. The Musical Masterworks concert Sunday afternoon proved certain advantages.
At the start of the chamber music performance in the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Masterworks Artistic Director and resident cellist Edward Arron explained that the four musicians had spent their week-long tour that preceded this final performance "chased up the East Coast by this historic storm."
The musicians drove north together from ice-storm gripped South Carolina Thursday, battling the weather, and Arron said, "If our ensemble is especially good today, it's because we spent a lot of time together."
Saturday evening's concert went ahead as scheduled, with about 75 hearty souls in attendance, but Sunday's sunshine brought a full house — and, yes, fine ensemble.
True to form, Arron set a program full of contrasts, both in groupings — a duo, then solo piano, then a pair of piano quartets — and in styles.
The program opened with a Masterworks' staple, one of Mozart's duos for violin and viola, G Major, K. 423, written as a ghost writer for his friend Michael Haydn, who was ill and unable to complete a commission. These Mozart duos may be fun for the audience, but violinist Arnaud Sussmann and violist Max Mandel gave ample proof that they're really fun to play.
The two musicians stood side by side for the conversational give-and-take of the three-movement duo. Mozart made ample use of open strings in the work to add a full, rich sound, and violist Mandel, who was often the responder, clearly reveled in the church's amazing acoustic, which always seems to give a boost to the lower-pitched viola and cello.
By the final movement, the two Old Lyme veterans grinned broadly every time they made eye contact, and at the final cadence, they shared a spontaneous hug.
Next, Israeli pianist Benjamin Hochman, winner of the 2011 Avery Fisher Career Grant, performed three of Brahms' late intermezzi for solo piano from his Opus 116. While a composer such as Haydn or Janacek would write music late in life with the ardor and energy of a youth, Brahms' music mellowed into a unique glow generally called simply "autumnal."
Hochman performed the three — No. 4 in E Major, No. 5 in E Minor and No. 6 in E Major — with a sensitive reticence, in contrast to the high spirits of the Mozart, creating a rich sonic glow from these center-of-the-keyboard fantasies. Particularly fine was No. 5, where he emerged from the almost static opening chordal section to the central section (each has something of an A-B-A structure) as if seeking a voice, creating a calm drama. And again, in No. 6, he was plaintive and searching in the central material and created the aura of drifting on an ongoing tide in the closing measures.
As a contrast to the three Austro-Germanic staples on the program, Arron included Spanish composer Joaquin Turina's 1931 Piano Quartet in A minor. This strange quartet, with no formal structure, uses a calm lento theme, almost a nocturne (if the night were short), and a robust andante theme as alternating parts. In fact, the work ends with a direct quote of the opening movement's pairing. The themes have a distinct folk flavor, and the lack of contrapuntal effects reinforce the folk feel.
Again and again, the quartet is set as a string trio playing with, or against, the pianist, and the quartet lost its sense of direction through the repetitions. There were occasional sparks, such as violinist Sussmann's fiery cadenza to open the last movement, but despite the committed performance Sunday, it was a mere aside after what followed.
The program ended with a terrifically energetic performance of Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 47. Seldom do beauty and excitement share a room as convincingly as in Sunday's reading of this utterly direct merging of Classical forms and Romantic expressiveness.
From the optimistic and expansive opening movement to the fugal finale, Sunday's performance had a sure sense of direction, with moments of musical magic. The third movement andante cantabile, one of Schumann's most memorable melodies, is a gift to all cellists, and Arron savored it. Yet Sunday, the equally moving trio section made sparks, with violist Mandel achingly poignant and reserved in spare stops.
The final movement, which opens and ends with fugue and is rife with propulsive stretto effects, was an exuberant delight. The quartet simply attacked the thematic material, most of which were hinted at in the first three movements (like the Turina, Schumann linked motifs from one movement to the next — and unlike Turina, he knew what to do with them).
And that moment of magic that draws us back to these concerts all season came at the finale, when Hochman carried forward the theme from opening fugue as the string players started a second, only to join them as the fourth voice. It felt as if Hochman was revealing a secret about a piece so well known … now that's magic.