Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center – Mendelssohn & Brahms

Lieder ohne Worte, Opp.19b/6, 30/6, 67/2 & 67/4
String Quintet No.2 in B flat, Op.87
Intermezzo in A minor, Op.76/7; Capriccio in G minor, Op.116/3; Intermezzo in B minor, Op.119/1
String Quintet No.2 in G, Op.111

Gilbert Kalish (piano), Shmuel Ashkenasi & Philip Setzer (violins), Richard O’Neill & Arnaud Sussmann (violas) and Paul Watkins (cello)

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 18 May, 2014
Venue: Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City

David Finckel & Wu Han. Photograph: Christian SteinerThis final concert of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2013-2014 season was entitled “Mendelssohn & Brahms”, described in a program-note by co-artistic directors David Finckel and Wu Han as “the composers who bookended music’s romantic age”. The performance, however, although enjoyable, offered little insight – neither into either composer’s career nor into how music had evolved during the generation that separated them. Each half of the concert coupled piano pieces with a string quintet, but the piano miniatures seemed disconnected from the chamber works that followed. This may have been due, at least in part, to Gilbert Kalish’s rather tame readings.

Mendelssohn intended his Songs without Words to be played by amateurs in their parlors. Kalish did not infuse them with an added level of interest that would make them fully satisfying in the recital room. The first two, each a barcarolle titled ‘Venetianisches Gondellied’, feature sad minor-key melodies played over a pulsating rhythm in the bass, with trills in the right hand alleviating the darkness slightly in the second (Opus 30/6), and both dying out softly. The third, though also in the minor, is more rhythmic and somewhat cheerier with a more interesting dramatic arc, building to a climax before it also fades away. Kalish was best in the final choice, aptly titled ‘Spinnerlied’, a moto perpetuo of rapid figures in bright C major leading to a delicate finish.

Opening the second half, Kalish’s account of Brahms’s A minor Intermezzo was introspective but lacked variety. He began the G minor Capriccio with strong attack appropriate to its Allegro passionato marking, but the middle section was also played rather forcefully, building in intensity and then winding down to a near halt before returning to the opening theme. The delicate figures that open the B minor Intermezzo suggested falling rain, and the sweet melody that emerged was phrased with a touch of hesitation. Kalish’s accounts failed to capture that indefinable, but essential, quality of Brahms’s piano pieces, including the ‘inner voices’ that populate them.

The two String Quintets, both rife with delightful tunes, were quite another matter, given richly satisfying performances by players who exhibited a sense of unity beyond what one would expect from an ad hoc ensemble. Both composers added a second viola to advantage, producing greater depth of sonority and more intricate counterpoint than in a string quartet.

In the Mendelssohn’s opening Allegro vivace, Shmuel Ashkenasi negotiated the curlicues of the first-violin part while inventive harmonization was supplied by his colleagues. Paul Watkins provided bass support for the Andante scherzando’s bouncy theme, contrasted by Arnaud Sussmann’s sweetly melodic viola. Ashkenasi opened the Adagio with a stern tune accompanied by chords and later sang out sweetly over a series of tremolos. The movement’s quiet ending was contrasted by the sudden attack that began the finale. Here the mood was bright and joyful, with rapid figures, intricacy, and syncopated rhythms. A brief pause and a slow melodic passage led up to the resolution.

In the Brahms, the violinists and violists switched positions. Watkins’s cello announced the principal theme of the Allegro, and the two violas introduced the gorgeous second subject. All five instruments blended warmly throughout the extensive development, recapitulation and dramatic coda. The violas were again prominent in the Adagio, introducing the Theme on which its Variations are based, with O’Neill’s instrument especially resonant. The spirited Allegretto in three-quarter time, functions as a scherzo, and the Vivace finale has elements of both rondo and sonata forms, O’Neill the first to voice the recurring theme. Just as the music seems to be a chord away from ending, Brahms surprises the listener with a bouncy, dance-like coda that the players dashed off with terrific joie de vivre to complete an outing that flawlessly presented Brahms’s lovely melodies and opulent harmonies.

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