Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at Alice Tully Hall – Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms

Sonata in A for Piano and Violin, K526*
Piano Quartet in C minor, Op.1**
String Sextet in B flat, Op.18

Gloria Chien (piano), James Ehnes* & Sean Lee** (violins), Yura Lee & Richard O’Neill** (violas), and Narek Hakhnazaryan** & Timothy Eddy (cellos)

Reviewed by: Andrew Farach-Colton

Reviewed: 29 March, 2015
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

James EhnesPhotograph: Ben EalovegaMozart composed his A-major Violin Sonata immediately after completing the score to Don Giovanni. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the sighing, yearning, beseeching violin-writing in the slow movement brings Donna Elvira so strongly to mind. One can discern other parallels to that opera: the opening Molto allegro suggests the celebratory dancing of Zerlina’s wedding party, for example, while the rhythmic intricacies of the finale have a whiff of Giovanni’s dinner music. James Ehnes and Gloria Chien gave an elegant, unhurried interpretation of this delightful work that emphasized lyricism, yet the performance’s appreciable musical attributes somehow precluded vivid characterization. This was purely instrumental – and thus distinctly non-operatic – Mozart. Ehnes’s tone is consistently sweet, smooth, and true, and he was evenly matched by Chien’s eloquently plain-spoken phrasing and pearlescent tone. It was lovely, even if it missed a good deal of the music’s dramatic potential.

Narek HakhnazaryanPhotograph: Mendelssohn’s early C-minor Piano Quartet, however, there was almost too much drama. Chien’s playing was spot-on throughout. She glided through the bravura piano part with quicksilver lightness and ease – exactly what one wants in Mendelssohn’s music. The trouble was with the strings; the players dug into their phrases so earnestly, and with such gluey legato, that the underlying pulse seemed to occasionally falter. There were some beautiful moments, particularly in the Adagio, where the musicians’ fervor had freer rein.

Brahms’s glorious B-flat String Sextet fared somewhat better. At the outset, thick textures and under-articulated phrasing gave an emotionally flat effect, but by the development section of the first movement, the players perked up, reveling myriad small but significant details – a contrapuntal tendril here, a breathless syncopation there. The ‘Theme and Variations’ second movement proceeded with unusual thrust and concision, though first-violist Yura Lee out-muscled her colleagues in a few passages. Only in the Scherzo did the performance really fail to satisfy, sounding dutiful rather than light-hearted (or light-footed). Even those wonderfully surprising key-changes in the Trio section breezed by without so much as a sideways glance. Happily, amends were made in the finale, with an abundance of warmth and relaxed playfulness.

The program will be repeated on Tuesday March 31 at 19.30

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