This delightful Chamber Music Society concert was comprised of three Romantic era works written for very different ensembles. Schubert’s F-minor Fantasie for piano, four hands, written in the last year of his life, was played with abundant charm by Ken Noda (at the top end of the keyboard) and Wu Han, CMS’s Co-Artistic Director, at the bottom). They explored in some depth the variations on the recurring theme on which the first and last sections are based, and in the two central sections they brought out the lyricism of the Largo and the infectious rhythm of the Allegro.
Tenor Paul Appleby and Noda next gave a lovely rendition of a Schubert song, Das Fischermädchen, which was not in the printed program, but the logic of its serving as a transition from the Fantasie to Dichterliebe escaped me. Appleby’s performance of Schumann’s cycle was, in a word, superb. His voice was gorgeous across its range, and his control of dynamics was flawless. His nuanced gestures and facial expressions made him a convincing storyteller as he sang of the travails of Heine’s protagonist poet. In the fourth song, ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ Appleby’s “Ich liebe dich!’ (I love you) was breathtaking, and the ensuing piano postlude was tenderly rendered by Noda. Appleby’s burnished lower register was prominent in ‘Im Rhein im heiligen Strome’ and at the start of ‘Ich grolle nicht’, in which the beauty and power of his top notes at the song’s climax was absolutely thrilling. Noda played the cycle’s extended postlude with touching delicacy. As an encore, the pair offered Schubert’s Am Meer, yet another setting of Heine’s poetry, with Appleby’s voice if anything even more radiant.
After intermission came Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, featuring David Shifrin, who has been performing with the Chamber Music Society for nearly forty years and served as its Artistic Director from 1992 to 2004. This performance radiated an aura of lush beauty from the opening melody right through to the final cadence. In the Allegro, Shifrin had the clarinet’s melodic line flowing smoothly, especially resonant in its low register, and blending perfectly with the strings. He took the lead through most of the Adagio, in which fine cello and violin solos heralded a more agitated mood, although the movement’s predominant calm soon returned. The strings brought a rather jolly aspect to the Andantino after swooping clarinet runs led to a broken-rhythm tune. Excellent solos by cellist Keith Robinson and violist Yura Lee each figured prominently in one of the Finale’s five variations on a recurring theme. The movement also featured interesting interplay between Shifrin and first violinist Aaron Boyd, and intricate pizzicato playing by all of the strings, ending dramatically with a pair of contrasting chords, the first loud, and the second soft and sweet.